Why Infrastructure is Central to Achieving a More Resource-efficient Future
Photo Credit: Carlos Delgado
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Over the past five decades, the world has seen exponential economic growth that has built upon the extraction and use of natural resources, based on linear economic models that follow a “take, make, dispose” pathway.

“Siloed” and “project-by-project” approaches to planning that consider infrastructure assets and sectors in isolation of others often result in inefficient service delivery.

Integrated, systems-level approaches can help to increase the resource efficiency of infrastructure as a key driver of sustainable development.

In advance of the recent World Resources Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, Marc Chardonnens, director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), emphasized that “the central role of mineral resources for low-carbon technologies and infrastructures needs to be discussed.” Since infrastructure development is particularly resource intensive, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Development Corridors Partnership have issued a joint policy brief on “Making Infrastructure Resource Efficient.”

In 2015, half of the global material footprint was attributed to the construction sector alone. Sand, as a major component of concrete, forms a large part of this material footprint, and is the second most consumed natural resource after water. In 2012, the construction of buildings, roads and dams across the globe was estimated to have used 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tonnes of concrete.

Urgency to Act: Infrastructure and Extraction of Natural Resources

Over the past five decades, the world has seen exponential economic growth that has built upon the extraction and use of natural resources, based on linear economic models that follow a “take, make, dispose” pathway. Under this model, material goods end their lifecycle as emissions or waste and have acute impacts on human health and the environment. To meet the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there is now an urgent need to decouple economic growth from the use and extraction of natural resources.

Rethinking how infrastructure is planned, designed, built, and operated across all sectors can help to improve the resource efficiency of infrastructure and make it a driver of the transition to sustainable development. The role of infrastructure in this transition is especially critical as there is an increasing global demand for infrastructure in both developing and developed countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, has estimated that an annual average of USD 6.9 trillion in infrastructure investment is required until 2030 to raise the probability of holding global warming below 2°C from 50% to 66% and help achieve SDG 13 (climate action).

Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Infrastructure

Given the urgency of the issue, UNEP and the Development Corridors Partnership’s joint policy brief focuses on the benefits of integrated, systems-level approaches in making infrastructure more resource efficient.

On the basis of the complex, networked properties of infrastructure systems, the policy brief calls for more integrated, systems-level approaches to infrastructure planning and development. Integrated approaches consider the interlinkages between different infrastructure systems and sectors, their locations, relevant governance frameworks, and the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental) throughout the entire infrastructure lifecycle. They do so as far upstream in the decision-making process as possible, and involve inclusive stakeholder consultation from the outset.

Integrated approaches recognize that developments in one sector can have positive cross-over impacts in another. Technological advancements in the transport sector, such as improved fuel efficiency in vehicles and trends towards electrification, can reduce energy demand and the need for new energy infrastructure. Efficient spatial planning can facilitate the transportation of materials between source and user, thereby fostering more circular resource flows. This enables “industrial symbiosis” where, for example, the waste streams from some industrial processes are used as inputs in others.

Enhancing Resource Efficiency of infrastructure

Better planning of infrastructure can also contribute to decreased resource use by limiting the amount of new infrastructure that is required in order to meet user needs. “Siloed” and “project-by-project” approaches to planning that consider infrastructure assets and sectors in isolation of others often result in inefficient service delivery. Needs-based assessments should inform national and long-term strategic infrastructure development. This can then direct short-, medium-, and long-term decision making in order to respond to end-user service needs, including the specific requirements of poor and vulnerable groups.

In addition, better management of existing infrastructure can generate savings of up to 15% on infrastructure investments. Further economic benefits occur with more resource-efficient practices as the costs of raw materials can reach up to 40-60% of the total construction and manufacturing costs for a given infrastructure asset.

The Role of Nature-based Solutions

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) take advantage of the services that natural infrastructure can provide. For example, natural and artificial ponds, reed beds, and wetlands can be used to treat raw sewage and wastewater. Afforestation or protection of existing forests and other ecosystems can enhance traditional flood protection measures and reduce soil erosion, while urban green infrastructure, such as walls and roofs planted with native species, can sequester carbon, remove air pollutants, and reduce the incidence of water pollution caused by urban run-off. These natural solutions to infrastructure end-user service needs can reduce the necessity to construct new infrastructure and provide cost-effective and resource-efficient complements and alternatives to traditional “grey” infrastructure.

Tools and Approaches

There are a number of existing tools that can be used to support integrated approaches to sustainable infrastructure. The Evidence-Based Infrastructure approach, developed by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium (ITRC) at the University of Oxford, is, for example, designed to account for the interconnections among infrastructure systems, and utilizes a “systems-of-systems” approach. This can help quantify the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of different infrastructure development scenarios. Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) can also be used to integrate environmental and social considerations into infrastructure decision-making processes. In addition, standards from financial institutions such as the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Performance Standard 6, can help to incorporate sustainability into financing infrastructure projects.

The Way Forward

More resource-efficient infrastructure will be critical to meeting the Goals of the global sustainability agenda. The policy brief calls for policymakers and planners to recognize the interlinkages between material resource use, natural resources, and the complex and diverse systems of infrastructure that are necessary to contribute to human and economic development. Integrated, systems-level approaches can help to increase the resource efficiency of infrastructure as a key driver of sustainable development.

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This article was written by Till-Niklas Braun, UN Environment Programme. To read the policy brief in full length, please follow this link.

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