Infrastructure is the backbone upon which our lives, societies and economies function. Roads and rails bring people to work and school; pipelines convey water from rivers and reservoirs to homes and factories; electricity grids link energy producers to consumers; and cables and computers transmit electrons at the speed of light allowing people to communicate instantly from thousands of kilometers away. Infrastructure is everywhere, but its business-as-usual development has had a profound and devastating impact on the planet. There is an urgent need to invest in more sustainable infrastructure to meet societies’ needs and deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sustainable Infrastructure includes built or natural systems that provide a range of services in a manner that ensures economic, financial, social, environmental, and institutional sustainability – both in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and over the entire infrastructure lifecycle – from strategic planning all the way to decommissioning & repurposing. Those services include energy, water, transportation, communication, flood protection, and other valuable resources necessary for a society and its economy to function.

As the definition shows, sustainable infrastructure doesn’t necessarily refer to any specific type of infrastructure in any specific sector; it actually refers to the outcomes of infrastructure development. Sustainability is not black and white, but a continuum – all infrastructure can be more or less sustainable by degrees, although there are of course certain differences that can have more impacts than others. For example:

  • Energy transition

    Switching from fossil fuel-based energy systems to renewable generation is essential for reducing the carbon footprint of infrastructure.

  • Gender sensitivity

    Considering and addressing different gender needs for infrastructure services not only improves social wellbeing and gender equality, but also facilitates women’s economic participation.

  • Integrated planning

    Using an integrated planning approach across multiple federal ministries to coordinate infrastructure development creates synergies and maximizes efficiency and affordability, stakeholder input, social equity, and service delivery.

  • Circular economy

    Integrating circular economy principles into planning processes and construction regulations helps reduce the resource footprint of infrastructure itself and eliminate waste.

  • Investments in natural infrastructure

    Protecting and restoring the natural environment provides services such as flood protection, water filtration, or carbon sequestration more cheaply than engineered solutions.

Why is Sustainable Infrastructure important?

The convergence of blatant crises affecting every corner of the planet and its people calls for a systemic transformation. Fossil fuel exploration, development, and combustion have restricted wildlife movement, destroyed watersheds, and precipitated climate change. Large-scale land use change and urbanization have strained nature so much that 1 in 5 countries is at risk of ecosystem collapse – which is alarming given over half of the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on biodiversity. Gender-blind transportation or sanitation facilities and a disregard of indigenous land rights have exacerbated social inequalities and reinforced marginalization. Traditional, “business-as-usual” infrastructure is part of this knotted, interlinked problem: exclusive planning processes, an over-reliance on the automobile, insatiable energy appetite for cheap electricity and a strong emphasis on grey mega-projects are just a few examples.

Contribution of "business-as-usual" infrastructure to global greenhouse gas emissions
60-70%

In addition to the environment, the economic and business case for sustainable and inclusive infrastructure is increasingly recognised:  Research shows that investing in resilient infrastructure has a net benefit of $4.2 trillion with $4 in benefit for each $1 invested, whereas “business-as-usual” infrastructure not optimized for resilience only returns $1.5 for every $1 spent. Similarly, according to the OECD, applying a gender-lens to infrastructure delivery would increase the total GDP of its member-states by 2.5% until 2050. Private investors as well are increasingly recognizing the business case for sustainability and require assets to meet sustainability criteria to manage risks, respond to regulatory requirements and reveal opportunities such as untapped market potential.

Sustainable infrastructure is not a singular answer to all the world’s problems – but making infrastructure more sustainable can and will make a profoundly important and measurable impact on the present and future conditions of the entire planet. The infrastructure we invest in now will shape the societies and economies of the future. There is vast power and opportunity in sustainable infrastructure to facilitate a future where humans have a smaller ecological footprint while also a more grounded, healthy, and connected existence with our peers, with nature, and with ourselves. This is precisely why we are so excited to share thoughts, resources and tools with you to help you navigate sustainability strategies and approaches for different application contexts.

How to deliver Sustainable Infrastructure?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for delivering sustainable infrastructure. There are, however, a multitude of resources and tools that can be used in different contexts to help stakeholders plan, design, finance, build, operate and decommission infrastructure more sustainably. Ideally, tools that are relevant for a given context should be used together in a coordinated way to integrate sustainability into infrastructure delivery during every phase of the lifecycle.

The earlier, or further “upstream”, this integration begins, the better. By considering sustainability as early as possible, policymakers can create a policy, regulatory, and institutional environment that enables better integration of sustainability further “downstream” in the lifecycle. Similarly, planners can choose from the widest available choice of infrastructure options for delivering services, before decisions are made that make some of them become politically, technically, or economically unfeasible. Having a wider range of options increases the chances of maximizing synergies and balancing tradeoffs between the economic, social, and environmental outcomes of infrastructure development.

However, despite the clear advantages of early and coordinated action, it is never too late to start integrating sustainability into infrastructure, and actions taken during any phase of the lifecycle can have positive impacts. The Tool Navigator is designed to help users find practical solutions for each phase of the infrastructure lifecycle (see below). Regardless of the phase or specific focus, these tools tend to have a number of principles in common, such as lifecycle thinking, evidence-based decision-making, collaboration, and stakeholder engagement.

Approximately...
75%
...of infrastructure needed by 2050 is still to be built.

The Infrastructure Lifecycle

LifeCycle-Round

NB: Our infrastructure lifecycle predominantly reflects the process behind the delivery of public services through infrastructure,
which is in the domain of governments to plan and prioritise.

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