Sustainable Infrastructure: Protecting the Planet of Tomorrow Requires the Right Decisions to be Made Today
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Infrastructure systems for energy and buildings are fundamental drivers of economic growth (SDGs 1, 7, 8 and 9), transport and telecommunications systems enhance social inclusiveness (SDGs 4, 5 and 10), while access to water and food is contingent to human health and wellbeing (SDGs 2, 3 and 6).

Integrated, systems-level approaches holistically consider the economic, social, and environmental implications of infrastructure planning and development, enabling optimization of the cross-sectoral benefits and trade-offs that sustainable infrastructure can yield.

In 2015, the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represented an urgent call for action. Coming together, world leaders agreed upon a roadmap for future action, and the 17 SDGs established a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet, and the achievement of a better and more sustainable future for all. Four years on, the foundations for the attainment of these objectives are now being built, and infrastructure lies at the heart of this process.

In March 2019, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) passed a resolution on sustainable infrastructure (UNEP/EA.4/L.6) which urges countries to consider the wider impacts of their infrastructure planning and development. The resolution is the first to directly engage infrastructure as a distinct concept, and presents a timely reminder of infrastructure’s fundamental role in determining the future paths our planet takes.

The resolution highlights the centrality of infrastructure to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. While only explicitly considered under SDG 9, which addresses resilient infrastructure in relation to inclusive and sustainable industrialization and innovation, infrastructure also underpins each of the other socioeconomic SDGs. Infrastructure systems for energy and buildings are fundamental drivers of economic growth (SDGs 1, 7, 8 and 9), transport and telecommunications systems enhance social inclusiveness (SDGs 4, 5 and 10), while access to water and food is contingent to human health and wellbeing (SDGs 2, 3 and 6).

At the same time, however, infrastructure also has direct and indirect relationships with the environment. Throughout each phase of its existence, infrastructure affects, and is affected by, ecological conditions. Poorly planned infrastructure can therefore place enormous pressures on ecosystems and natural resources, and the long lifespan of most infrastructure assets compounds this by locking-in environmentally unsustainable choices for both our own and future generations. To protect the planet of tomorrow, then, we must first make the right infrastructure decisions today.

Conveniently, this nexus means that if the right decisions are made, extraordinary results can be achieved across each of the SDGs. Yet doing so will require the adoption of integrated, systems-level approaches that holistically consider the economic, social, and environmental implications of infrastructure planning and development, enabling optimization of the cross-sectoral benefits and trade-offs that sustainable infrastructure can yield.

Such approaches share three key characteristics. First, they consider the interconnections among infrastructure systems, sectors, levels of governance, and spatial scales, as well as the environmental, social, and economic strands of sustainable development, across the entire life-cycle of infrastructure systems (i.e. from early planning to decommissioning). Second, they consider these interconnections as far as upstream in the decision-making process as possible, when alternatives are still technically, politically, and economically feasible. And third, they incorporate stakeholder consultation and public participation from the very outset of the process, so that as broad a range of potential opportunities and challenges as possible is captured in the planning and development analysis.

While integrated, systems-level approaches to sustainable infrastructure planning and development are by no means a novel concept, country-level adoption up to this point has been slow. In this context, the UNEA has requested that UN Environment prepare a report on best practices for sustainable infrastructure, drawing on the wide body of existing normative guidance and identifying any gaps in the existing knowledge.

In response, UN Environment has convened an Expert Working Group to lead the work on this task. The Group will hold its first meeting in May 2019, and will be charged with producing a consolidated normative guidance document on integrated, systems-level approaches to the planning and development of sustainable infrastructure. The document will seek to develop a set of overarching principles that can be applied to inform sustainable infrastructure policymaking at the global level, while acknowledging that diverse national situations and circumstances call for tailored approaches that can be developed in alignment with these.

Operating under the umbrella of UN Environment’s Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership, the Expert Working Group will now look to build upon the momentum generated by the recent Geneva Forum for Sustainable Infrastructure, and the UN Environment Management Group’s Nexus Dialogue on the same topic. These and other forums have recognized that integrated, systems-level approaches to sustainable infrastructure can be a catalyst for achieving the required transformational change the 2030 Agenda promotes and, in so doing, help achieve a better and more sustainable future for all – people and planet.

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This article was written by Colm Hastings, Intern, UN Environment (Resources and Markets Branch).


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