There’s a lot of building to do.

According to the Global Infrastructure Hub think tank, the world needs to spend more than US$80 trillion by 2040to satisfy the United Nations Strategic Development Goal (SDG) 9: to build resilient infrastructure to drive inclusive and sustainable industrialization.

That sounds like an unthinkably huge amount of concrete, cement, steel, glass and other materials. And if you walked past a typical construction site you may wonder how on earth this could be achieved sustainably.

Take what would appear to be the greenest of green technologies: an offshore wind farm using the most recent turbine technology. A single turbine is more than 100 meters tall and weighs 900 tonnes. When you consider that there are 60 of these in one farm, and that the US alone, to meet the recent target of 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030, would have to construct 37 such projects around its coastline in the coming decade,2 you get a sense of the scale of development needed to create a sustainable energy base.

Technologies like solar, wind and batteries have exciting potential, but they require us to mine scarce resources at a time when we’re striving to take less, not more, from our planet. It’s estimated that over three billion tons of minerals like lithium, graphite and cobalt will be needed by 2050.3

As well as depleting the earth’s finite supplies, extraction can cause environmental damage and threaten biodiversity at a time when we’re losing species at an increasing rate4 – despite the fact that more than half of global GDP is dependent on nature5 and its services. For example, mining for raw materials like copper and lithium uses up vast amounts of water,6 putting a strain on supplies and creating droughts.

Countries rich in minerals may depend heavily on such resources for income and employment, but these industries can wreak havoc with workers’ human rights. Mining cobalt – vital to batteries – may involve child labor and dangerous working conditions,7 with potential for accidents and chronic health conditions brought on by over-exposure to harmful substances. Investors with growing green portfolios should steer clear of mining, production and transportation that fail to meet sustainability criteria.

There’s also a growing recognition that, by focusing solely on extraction, mineral-rich countries fail to gain the full economic benefit of their resources. With refining and manufacturing typically carried out elsewhere, these nations are left at the bottom of the value chain, which is a recipe for continued economic inequality.

The world should be greener and fairer

One of the solutions to these dilemmas is circularity. To design and build infrastructure with materials that can be re-used, recycled or returned safely to nature as part of a ‘closed-loop’ system that minimizes carbon footprint, water usage and pollution, and preserves resources. A circular economy should also be an equitable economy, where extraction is carried out responsibly, with strict attention to the rights of workers.

In a recent KPMG report, Resourcing the Energy Transition, it is argued that a circular economy can only be achieved through coordinated efforts between governments, infrastructure player, renewable technology companies, mining companies, manufacturers and investors.

Multilateral development banks also have a role to play, to help governments make their countries more attractive to infrastructure investors, by laying the foundations for circularity, lowering carbon emissions from construction, and helping emerging markets gain greater economic value from their deposits.

Infrastructure is the foundation of sustainable development, inextricably linked with most or all of the other SDGs like universal healthcare, equality of education, clean water and sanitation, affordable, clean energy, sustained economic growth and reduction of poverty.

It sometimes feels like the wealthier nations are on a course to build greener economies using ‘old’ ways, by simply swapping fossil fuels for renewables, continuing to use up the world’s resources to fuel their own infrastructure ambitions, without a thought for the plight of developing countries.

But a truly sustainable, circular and equitable world can benefit us all. Which calls for global collaboration, to change the way we extract and transport materials and build infrastructure, so that we protect the earth, preserve water and natural resources, treat workers and their communities with dignity, and provide people everywhere with education, healthcare, sanitation and economic opportunities.

Footnotes :

https://outlook.gihub.org/
2 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2021/06/12/the-bottlenecks-which-could-constrain-emission-cuts
3 http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/961711588875536384/Minerals-for-Climate-Action-The-Mineral-Intensity-of-the-Clean-Energy-Transition.pdf
4 https://news.brown.edu/articles/2014/09/extinctions
5 https://www.weforum.org/reports/nature-risk-rising-why-the-crisis-engulfing-nature-matters-for-business-and-the-economy
6 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chile-lithium-water-idUSKCN1LE16T
7 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/the-hidden-cost-of-the-electric-car-boom-child-labour/

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