Infrastructure can and must go green

World leaders can and must rethink how they build power plants, highways, water treatment facilities and other infrastructure if they want to make a meaningful dent in the Paris Agreement climate change goals, according to new research. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Image credit: _M_V_ via Unsplash


Officials in the United Nations Environment Program, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank released a preview of the research on September 25 on the first day of major debates in the General Assembly’s latest session. They are expected to release the full report entitled “Financing Climate Futures: Rethinking Infrastructure” during the next climate change conference in Poland.

Systemic shift needed

“We need to urgently deliver on our climate and development goals, and to do that we need a systemic shift of trillions of dollars towards low-emission and resilient investment,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría in a press release.

Energy, transport, water and other infrastructure generate more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, the research showed.

At the same time, green bond issuance worldwide increased from $11 billion in 2013 to $155 last year. Politicians and lawmakers also enacted 300 sustainable finance policy measures, up from 139 in 2013, the findings said.

Incentives and regulations needed

Yet government and private finance often ignore investments in infrastructure that present opportunities for sustainability.

“We cannot ignore the new reality of powerful weather events that threaten jobs, homes, food security and other critical areas of our lives,” said World Bank Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva. “The infrastructure that is built today must be ready to cope with tomorrow’s changing climate. We need the right incentives and regulations to urgently accelerate funding to these projects.”

Signatories to the Paris Agreement have called for keeping global temperatures from rising less than 2 degree Celsius and then reducing those increases to zero or lowering temperatures by the end of the century.

$500bn spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies

Investing in low-carbon infrastructure would help attain that goal and add 5 per cent to global gross domestic product by 2050, the researchers argued. Those gains included lower risks from extreme weather and cost savings from green energy.

But governments today spend $500 billion annually on coal, oil and gas subsidies. Currently, power plants under construction or proposed are on track to double emission from energy in the coming years.

The report makes six recommendations: plan infrastructure for a low-emission and resilient future; boost innovation in clean technologies; disentangle public budgets from fossil fuel revenues; reset the financial system to align with long-term climate-related risks and opportunities; empower local governments to build low-emission models and rethink international aid and development banks’ investments in light of climate goals.

Need to start making real change happen

“Building climate-compatible infrastructure is a cornerstone for the success of the Paris Agreement and broader sustainability goals, and we have seen encouraging momentum in this direction,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, in a press release. “But we need to start making real change happen. Only sustainable infrastructure can deliver huge benefits to people and the planet. To encourage the capital allocation that will unlock this promise, however, we need new thinking.”

Some officials are already undertaking projects that reflect the preliminary report’s concerns.

In Berkeley, California, local leaders are making a sustainable infrastructure plan that will last the college town through 2050.

Among other ideas, they are looking into using permeable pavement when they next replace major roads. The permeable pavement lets rainwater pass through into ground below rather than channeling storm water into San Francisco Bay. What’s more, permeable pavement lasts for 50 to 100 years whereas regular asphalt last for 25 years.

“By 2050, we will be deep in the impacts of climate change,” said Berkeley environmentalist Kathy Dervin at a recent meeting to discuss the city’s plan. “Things are moving rapidly.”

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