13 December 2018
Why Sustainable Infrastructure Should Be at the Heart of Discussions at the COP 24 in Katowice
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Infrastructure must be a key focus of ongoing climate talks, not only due to its impact on GHG emissions, but also given the extraordinary opportunity it provides to exploit cross-cutting interlinkages for the fight against climate change.

A recent policy brief published by UN Environment, UNIDO, UNOPS, the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, the Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium and the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network calls attention to the importance of integrated approaches to infrastructure in order to reap environmental, social and economic co-benefits through climate-smart infrastructure development.

The 24th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 24) to the UNFCCC opened on 2 December in Katowice, Poland. The two week-long meeting takes place at a crossroads for global action against climate change. Agreeing on the rules and guidelines for the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change will be a crucial step towards global climate action. In his opening remarks on 3 December, Michal Kurtyka, President of COP 24, stressed that “without success in Katowice there is no success of Paris.” At the same ceremony, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that “climate change is the single most important issue we face,” noting that it “affects all our plans for sustainable development and a safe, secure and prosperous world.”

The urgency of the situation is underscored by recent scientific research. The latest World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin warns that the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) over the past 70 years has reached a level not seen on earth for 3-5 million years, and a key report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), underlines that anthropogenic CO2 emissions will have to drop to net zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

While climate change implications are currently felt most directly by small island developing States (SIDS) like Kiribati, Fiji or Maldives, stopping global warming requires the international community to step up and to join forces in order to save our common planet and to improve the lives of present and future generations.

The Role of Infrastructure in Climate Action

Infrastructure for development was identified as one of three main priority areas under the Argentine G20 Presidency in 2018. This decision was based on the pivotal importance of diverse infrastructure systems such as water and sanitation, transportation and energy, among others, for “growth and productivity,” and further buttressed by the scale of investments needed to close the global infrastructure gap (estimates mentioned by the G20 Presidency amount to more than US$5 trillion until 2035). Taking into account that up to 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 still remains to be built, sustainable approaches to guard against the lock-in of unsustainable technologies and practices are of paramount importance for climate action.

While infrastructure accounts for a major part of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (according to the World Bank estimates, about 70%), it is also central for development, for instance through the improvement of connectivity and mobility. If built in a sustainable and purposefully designed manner, infrastructure can fulfil its socioeconomic functions without detrimental impacts on the environment. In turn, mainstreaming climate action into the infrastructure lifecycle can yield important co-benefits across all three pillars of sustainability – the environment, the economy and the society. In António Guterres’ words, “all too often, climate action is seen as a burden […] decisive climate action today is our chance to right our ship and set a course for a better future for all,” and infrastructure must be an integral component of this new course.

Building upon this fundamental nexus between infrastructure and climate change, UN Environment, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, the Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium and the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network have issued a joint policy brief in December 2018 to draw attention to the importance of system-level infrastructure planning for efficient and effective climate mitigation and adaptation.

The Way Forward: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Infrastructure

The aforementioned policy brief zeroes in on the complex networked properties of infrastructure, which call for a “systems-of-systems” approach to planning and development that considers interconnections between different infrastructure systems, sectors, and jurisdictions. This means that we need to involve a wide spectrum of stakeholders all along the infrastructure lifecycle, including the private sector and civil society. Sustainability concerns should be considered as far upstream in the planning cycle as possible, when alternatives are still economically and politically feasible. The brief highlights a number of key points for policymakers involved in all phases of the planning and development process to boost climate-smart, resilient infrastructure. Inter alia, the brief calls for investment in research and development for sustainable construction materials, innovative financing solutions, robust legal frameworks and standards, and policies fostering new business models, such as sharing economy applications.

The paper emphasizes that “sustainable and resilient infrastructure (SDG 9) is a core component of all pathways towards a low-carbon economy, and unleashing the potential of purposefully designed infrastructure policies and assets is essential to spur multilevel climate action (SDG 13).” In other words, the infrastructure assets we build today, will guide and define international development in the coming decades. They will provide the physical structure for our future economies and societies, and hence decisively impact our future carbon footprint. This is why sustainable infrastructure should be a cornerstone of climate change negotiations at the COP 24 in Poland.

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This article was written by Vanessa Bauer, UN Environment. To read the policy brief in full length, please follow this link.


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