Opinion | Energy & Environment

Our infrastructure decisions now define our future climate

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Climate change is already impacting communities in every country, across every continent, from rising sea levels and extreme weather events, to disrupted economies, food and water insecurity and conflict. This is not a forecast - this is happening right now.

This is a "code red for humanity", to quote the United Nations' (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has painted a clear picture of the climate emergency that we face, with changes that are unprecedented, intensifying and sometimes irreversible.

There is still time to act, but we need to do this urgently.

Yet, while leaders around the world agree on the need to step up our efforts to tackle this emergency - with the conversation gathering momentum ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow - a key aspect of our climate efforts rarely receives the attention it should.

Infrastructure - from homes and hospitals to roads and power plants - influences every aspect of our lives. It is key to defining our climate future. Yet, its role is often overlooked, with short-sighted decisions locking in carbon emissions for decades to come and thereby effectively blocking the necessary transition to a net-zero future. 

A new report has laid bare the extent of infrastructure's influence on our climate goals: Infrastructure accounts for 79 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 88 percent of all adaptation costs, according to findings published by my organization, UNOPS - the UN's infrastructure specialists,  together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the University of Oxford.

The sheer scale of this influence calls for radical changes in infrastructure planning, delivery and management to achieve key climate and development targets. Our current infrastructure choices are setting the course of the future, and we have a unique chance to correct course here. We can choose to make infrastructure investments work toward a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Without radical actions, we will reap extreme consequences.

Let me give you an example. The largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the energy, transport and buildings sectors, the latter including everything from homes and offices and hospitals and schools. The buildings sector on its own is among the top contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 17 percent of global emissions. The sector is expected to account for 22 percent of global adaptation costs.

Yet, the question is not whether buildings are needed - there is no doubt that we need hospitals, schools and homes for a functioning society. The key point is how do we transform the way we plan, construct, manage and operate buildings for a sustainable future?

Integrating nature-based solutions, sustainable building materials and construction methods, and improving energy efficiency are part of the answer. These can have positive knock-on effects across other sectors required to run buildings, such as energy and water supply. 

Infrastructure systems are interrelated, and they are built to last. When governments and businesses fail to appreciate these points, the resulting infrastructure often fails to support climate action. Yet, too often, decision-makers solve one infrastructure issue at a time, without thinking about how it impacts on and is impacted by others. This needs to end now. Decisions on infrastructure need to aim for long-term impact for people and the planet. 

This is particularly important for the current moment we find ourselves in. As our world looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, infrastructure offers a unique chance to rebuild economies and create jobs, while supporting climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. If the stakes are high for our infrastructure future, so are the rewards: In low and middle-income countries alone, investing in resilient infrastructure can save $4.2 trillion, a return of $4 for each $1 invested, according to the World Bank.

We know that our world's infrastructure needs are immense and unprecedented, an estimate of more than $90 trillion in global infrastructure investment by 2030. As our world comes together to contemplate a net-zero future, we must demand the right infrastructure decisions, for a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future. 

Grete Faremo is the under-secretary-general and executive director of UNOPS, - the UN's infrastructure and procurement specialists. UNOPS is committed to supporting climate action and tackling the climate emergency. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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