Infrastructure and sustainable development are positively interlinked. Approximately 70% of greenhouse gases are linked to the construction and operation of infrastructure, and buildings alone are estimated to account for more than 30% of global resource consumption and energy end use. According to a WHO report, the number of deaths from emissions from key infrastructure industries will rise from the current 150,000 per year to 250,000 by 2030.
Does that mean that the solution to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to saving our planet is to stop all construction of infrastructure? Let’s take a closer look at the nexus between the SDGs and infrastructure.
Sustainable Development Goals and infrastructure
In 2015, all United Nations Member States adopted a development policy on sustainability which centers around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The 17 goals provide a global blueprint for peace and prosperity of people and the planet, and are set to be achieved by 2030. It goes without saying that SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, are connected with infrastructure.
But we also rely upon diverse forms of infrastructure to deliver essential services and support our economies. Human well-being depends upon water and sanitation infrastructure (SDG 6), just as quality education (SDG 4) and productivity depend on access to energy (SDG 7). Infrastructure can result in better health (SDG 3), can result in economic growth (SDG 8), and with all these combined, it can help eradicate poverty (SDG 1). Overall, purposefully planned urban infrastructure including smart public transportation, green and energy-efficient buildings as well as green spaces are vital to ensure that the world’s fast-growing cities are in line with the 2030 Agenda.
These examples show the answer is not to stop construction of infrastructure, but to ameliorate the construction plans and to shape it in such a way that helps achieving the SDGs. Part of the solution lies in sustainable infrastructure or low-carbon infrastructure.
What is the definition of sustainable infrastructure? Sustainable infrastructure is planned, designed, constructed, operated, and decommissioned in a manner to ensure economic and financial, social, environmental (including climate resilience), and institutional sustainability over its entire life cycle. While the economic benefits and financial aspects are important, there are economic risks associated with it that need to be considered to avoid any negative impacts, e.g. debt and fiscal sustainability.
Sustainable infrastructure can help build resilience in countries while protecting against exposure to extreme climate change events. An example of low carbon infrastructure is railway infrastructure that reduces the number of carbon-emitting trucks.
The demand for this type of infrastructure and the worldwide drive for economic growth are high in both developed countries and in developing countries as well.
The people, the economy, and the planet
Infrastructure can yield cross-sectorial benefits and provides a basis for improvements within three dimensions: an economic dimension, a social dimension, and an environmental dimension.
Sustainable infrastructure underpins the delivery of all the social SDGs. Improved access to basic services is one of the fundamental objectives of infrastructure development, and sustainable infrastructure that integrates electricity, transport, clean water, and sanitation services is closely associated with poverty alleviation.
For the economy, investments in infrastructure will result in growth through employment creating, a new source of income, trade opportunities and assets and services. The optimal use of local labour and materials can also stimulate the local economy and contribute to poverty reduction.
At last, it is widely acknowledged that the ambitions set out by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change will only be met by a transition towards sustainable energy requiring large investments in new infrastructure, and that limiting climate change to any level.
Sustainable infrastructure in practice
Below are two examples of sustainable infrastructure in practice in a developed country and in a developing country.
Construction of e.g. roads, bridges and industrial facilities should contemplate future climatic conditions. The City of Copenhagen, Denmark, did this with their 2012 Cloudburst Plan: the plan outlines measures recommended for climate adaption including extreme rainfall. Tunnels and roads were designed to increase drainage capacity and water discharge into the sea. Furthermore, buildings got installed anti-flooding mechanisms.
Infrastructure supports developing countries seeking to integrate into the global economy by facilitating international trade. Well-functioning transportation and intermodal infrastructure enables domestic producers to export goods abroad.
In Kenya, the power plant, Olkaria, is a geothermal investment project which was built in order to reduce the country’s reliance on hydropower. Olkaria has increased the proportion of geothermal energy to 51% of the Kenyan national energy mix according to the World Bank. Development of geothermal power is also key to Kenya’s strategy for alleviating poverty through increased access to reliable and clean energy. The World Bank’s country director for Kenya, Diarietou Gaye, commented on how the energy sector is “a key infrastructure investment in the fight against poverty.”
Interested in learning more about sustainability and the UN?
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2021 to bring the global environmental community together in Stockholm, Sweden for a major international environmental meeting on June 2 and 3 2022, the week of World Environment Day.
The event will provide leaders with an opportunity to draw on 50 years of multilateral environmental action to achieve the bold and urgent action needed to secure a better future on a healthy planet.
By recognizing the importance of multilateralism in tackling the Earth’s triple planetary crisis – climate, nature, and pollution – the event will act as a springboard accelerate the implementation of the UN Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, including the 2030 Agenda, and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
To learn more about SDGs, climate mitigation, multilateral cooperation in the environmental sector, see here: Stockholm+50.
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