11 April 2019
SDG Knowledge Weekly: Cities and Infrastructure
Photo credit: Lynn Wagner
story highlights

An analysis published in Nature Sustainability finds that infrastructure influences nearly three quarters (72%) of the 169 SDG targets.

A joint paper by the World Bank and WRI examines how developing country service providers can harness the power of nature to help achieve development goals; a joint report by WWF and Cadmus Group assesses the current landscape of ESG integration in the infrastructure investment space; and a paper by WWF and GIZ looks at opportunities to improve infrastructure planning for social-ecological resilience.

Several events on planning and investing in sustainable infrastructure were also convened.

This edition of the SDG Knowledge Weekly looks at SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), with a focus on how infrastructure can undergird and support sustainable development as a whole, as well as sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11).

Infrastructure influences nearly three-quarters of the SDG targets.

An analysis published in Nature Sustainability describes how infrastructure can support sustainable development, noting that it forms “the backbone of every society” but “can also create harmful social and environmental impacts.” The paper, authored by staff from the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), University of Oxford, World Bank, UK Department for International Development (DFID), German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), finds that infrastructure influences nearly three-quarters (72%) of the 169 SDG targets. It counts the interdependencies across infrastructure sectors vis-à-vis the SDGs, and sets out for a process for infrastructure prioritization to meet the SDGs based on existing infrastructure performance, scenario analysis and options appraisal, drivers of future infrastructure needs, and infrastructure planning and policies.

A joint paper by the World Bank and World Resources Institute (WRI) examines how service providers in developing countries can harness the power of nature, where appropriate, to help achieve development goals. The report titled, ‘Integrating Green and Gray: Creating next generation infrastructure,’ notes that natural systems such as forests, floodplains and soils can contribute to clean, reliable water supply and protect against floods and drought. It highlights that combining this “green infrastructure” with traditional “gray infrastructure,” such as dams, levees, reservoirs, treatment systems, and pipes, can provide next-generation solutions that enhance system performance and better protect communities. The paper outlines the social foundation of—and economics behind—green infrastructure, also discussing options for enabling policies that deliver effective green infrastructure. A World Bank feature story and blog are also available.

Delivering infrastructure, whether green or gray, requires investment. A joint report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Cadmus Group assesses the current landscape of environmental, social and governance (ESG) integration in the infrastructure investment space, with a focus on private equity investors, who can influence the sustainability of infrastructure through direct ownership and stewardship of assets. The report highlights the growing role of private investors in infrastructure investment, as well as increasing pressure on private investors to demonstrate sustainable or responsible investment practices in line with the SDGs and other sustainability frameworks. It also discusses the role of private investors in mainstreaming ESG considerations in the finance world, examining the extent to which ESG is being integrated and summarizing current frameworks and tools for infrastructure ESG analysis. The paper concludes that ESG criteria can help manage risks and improve financial returns for infrastructure projects, but flags that use of these criteria varies widely across the industry, and adoption of third-party ESG tools by investors has been limited.

Another joint paper, by WWF and GIZ, looks at opportunities to improve infrastructure planning for social-ecological resilience. The paper calls for greater attention to be paid to natural capital, ecosystem services and the benefits they provide to local communities and regional economies, noting that “resilience services” must be better integrated throughout the infrastructure development cycle. The authors also identify opportunities available to the infrastructure sector to improve upstream planning, in financial, regulatory and cross-sectoral spaces. A more detailed write-up is available on the SDG Knowledge Hub.

Building on the UN Environment Management Group (EMG) Nexus Dialogue on Sustainable Infrastructure on 26 February 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland, UN system actors issued an inter-agency statement on ways that integrated approaches to sustainable infrastructure can help deliver the 2030 Agenda. The statement argues that infrastructure is linked to all the SDGs, but cautions that poorly conceived projects may undermine sustainable development, noting that approximately 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are linked to the construction and operation of infrastructure. It further cautions that infrastructure development can have complex social impacts related to displacement, land rights, cultural heritage, indigenous peoples, gender equality, employment, public health, safety and security, sexual exploitation and abuse, and thus calls on designers and planners to apply a mitigation hierarchy. Such a hierarchy would prioritize efforts to avoid negative environmental and social impacts, followed by minimization, then restoration, with offsetting as a last resort. It notes that nature-based solutions, or green infrastructure described above, “should be favored wherever possible.”

The EMG Nexus Dialogues are a series of events centered on discussing the interlinkages between environmental issues in the context of the wider SDG arena. The dialogue on infrastructure discussed interlinkages between different infrastructure systems, sectors, project phases, locations, and aspects of sustainability, as well as country examples on what sustainable infrastructure looks like in practice. Past topics have included biodiversity and green jobs, while the next dialogue will discuss sound management of chemicals and waste.

An event on quality infrastructure was hosted on 4 April 2019, organized by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Brussels, Belgium. Linking the above documents, the International Quality Infrastructure Forum focused on best practices in infrastructure to achieve the SDGs and implement the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). It also discussed how sustainability standards can help the private sector achieve the SDGs.

Regionally, an Expert Group Meeting on Infrastructure Financing for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific was convened by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), from 7-8 March 2019, in Bangkok, Thailand. The meeting paid particular attention to the increasing complexity and transnational aspects of infrastructure investment in the region, and the improvement of public sector efficiency. Presentations are available at the above link, and a summary is available on the SDG Knowledge Hub.

Also looking at the Asia-Pacific region, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana of ESCAP highlights in an op-ed on IPS News how “smart cities hold [the] key to sustainable development.” Noting the scale of urbanization in the region and the stress it has caused to public services, Alisjahbana calls for integrated planning and for greater consideration to be given to demographic and land use trends, which in turn should inform investments in infrastructure, including water, energy and transportation. She notes that these investments in smart cities – which entail smart grids and district energy solutions, real-time traffic, waste and water management systems – and other new technologies will enable future cities to operate more effectively. Relatedly in Europe, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community and KfW announced that they are working together on a Smart Cities pilot project, through a new grant for urban development and digitization.

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.

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