A Sting Exclusive: “Infrastructure can lay the groundwork for the Sustainable Development Goals” by Mr Fulai Sheng, UN Environment Senior Economist

Fulai Sheng

Mr Fulai Sheng, Senior Economist at UN Environment (UN Environment, 2018)

Exclusively written for The Sting by Mr Fulai Sheng, UN Environment senior economist. The opinions belong to the distinguished writer.

Infrastructure’s importance is often overlooked. Similar to the circulatory and nervous systems in the human body, infrastructure underpins our economies and allow them to function. Energy, transport, telecommunications and water infrastructure provide the framework that supports our everyday lives. Without energy infrastructure to deliver heat and electricity, houses would stay cold in winter and machines and appliances would stop working. Transportation infrastructure meanwhile moves goods and people around the world, enabling trade and employment.

However, infrastructure can have major impacts on the environment and, as a result, on human health and wellbeing. Eurostat reports that more than 75% of CO2 emissions in the European Union stem from transportation and fuel combustion. Telecommunications have never played a more essential role in society, with everything and everyone relying on online information and data. But emissions from the Information and Communication Technology sector already accounted for 4% of total carbon emissions in the EU in 2015 and are expected to keep growing.

Water makes up more than 50% of our human bodies – it is critical to our survival at the most basic level, but also for agriculture and many industrial production processes. Water infrastructure, such as dams, can threaten biodiversity – by hindering fish migration, for example –  and increase water-borne diseases by creating insect breeding grounds. Large-scale transportation projects such as highways and railway lines can connect remote, less-developed communities with economic centers and contribute to inclusiveness and equal opportunities across different communities. At the same time, they can endanger species by blocking migration routes and reducing their natural habitat.

Designing and building sustainable infrastructure systems will be one of the biggest global challenges faced during the transition to inclusive green economies. The links between infrastructure and sustainable development are well illustrated in the global Sustainable Development Goals. While Goal 9 calls specifically for resilient infrastructure and sustainable industrialization, most of the 17 goals are closely linked to infrastructure. Affordable and clean energy (Goal 7), for example, and sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), will rely on the development of new infrastructure. According to the Global Infrastructure Outlook, in order for the Goals to be achieved, trillions of dollars will need to be invested in infrastructure every year. Growing populations, demographic changes and economic development will increase this number year by year in future.

Two-thirds of this money will need to be invested in the global South. This is an opportunity for low-income countries to start with sustainable infrastructure that leapfrogs the polluting systems prevailing in many developed countries. Pursuing a new pathway will not only bring economic growth, but also reduce poverty and prevent significant risks stemming from climate change.

In the EU, the High-Level Expert Group for Sustainable Finance recommended in its interim report in 2017 that a dedicated infrastructure organization be set up to close the financing gap by matching sustainable projects with investors. For cleaner energy, public-private partnerships between governments and energy service companies can play a leading role. A prime example in Europe is the city of Geneva, where the canton and the city have partnered with the local energy provider to develop a system that uses cold water from deep within Lake Geneva to cool buildings in summer. Beginning in 2022, a hydro-thermal network will bring renewable energy and heating to the city center and the airport. The sustainable use of local water resources makes urban energy infrastructure more resilient by reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, as well as more efficient: it is expected to slash Geneva’s total electricity consumption by 80%.

On a global scale, the biggest infrastructure initiative is the China-led One Belt, One Road Initiative, which sets out to connect Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe and covers more than 65 countries. Railways, ports, roads, or pipelines, for example, can bring prosperity to local communities, but will also strongly affect the environment. To ensure that the trillions of dollars in investment are used in the most environmentally sustainable way, countries need to plan their infrastructure development strategically, generating the best possible outcomes for the economy, society and the environment in an integrated manner. In addition, infrastructure projects must be evaluated against sustainability standards and follow safeguards and guidelines. There is no lack of sustainable infrastructure frameworks – the difficulty is in ensuring that they are actually being implemented.

To gather best practices and lessons learned from previous examples in order to inform the design and implementation of infrastructure development in future, UN Environment is hosting the Geneva Forum for Sustainable Infrastructure with IUCN, WWF and the University of Geneva on March 22 and 23. Key stakeholders are coming together to share their experiences and ideas of making infrastructure projects contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The forum is expected to become an annual event taking place across of the world, bringing knowledge and capacity closer to where infrastructure development is taking place.

About the author

Fulai is a UN Environment senior economist. Over the last 13 years, he has led the work on integrated policymaking for sustainable development, green economy, and more recently, sustainable infrastructure. Prior to joining UN Environment in 2005, he had served the Chinese Ministry of Finance, the World Bank, World Wide Fund for Nature, and Conservation International. His earlier work included promoting greening national accounting, conducting training in environmental economics, researching the relationship between macroeconomic policy, environment and poverty, and advocating comparative assessment of development options. He received his M.A. in Economics from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics in 1985.

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