Zimbabwe has long struggled with crippling power outages, some of which can last up to 18 hours a day. The cuts have been especially hard on the country’s hospitals and clinics, forcing nurses to deliver babies by candlelight and doctors to postpone emergency surgeries.
But that is starting to change. Since 2017, Zimbabwe has installed solar panels atop more than 400 healthcare facilities, steadying power supplies and replacing expensive and polluting diesel-fired generators. The “Solar for Health” initiative is a prime example of the type of sustainable infrastructure development that will be vital to combating climate change, improving public services, and driving the economic recovery from COVID-19.
So says a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It urges planners and policymakers to take a more systematic approach to sustainable infrastructure, incorporating it into their long-term development plans and ensuring human-made systems work with natural ones.
“We can no longer use the business-as-usual approach to infrastructure, which is leading to ecological destruction and massive carbon dioxide emissions. Investments in sustainable infrastructure are not only environmentally sound but also bring economic and social benefits. Low-carbon, nature-positive infrastructure projects can help minimize the sector’s environmental footprint and offer a more sustainable, cost-effective path to closing the infrastructure gap,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
A source of emissions
Built infrastructure, which includes everything from office blocks to highways to power plants, is responsible for 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, mentions the report, the International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure. Poorly designed, infrastructure can also displace communities, endanger wildlife and weigh, often for decades, on public finances.
“There is an urgent need to include sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure as an integral part of green growth to deliver energy, water, and transportation solutions that will facilitate opportunity, connection, and sustainable growth,” said Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the Global Green Growth Institute, a UNEP partner.”
Ban said the new report is a “very useful guiding framework for governments to lay the groundwork for a future where sustainable infrastructure is the only kind of infrastructure we know.”
To help countries reach that goal, the new UNEP report offers guiding principles for governments to integrate sustainability into their decision-making on infrastructure. Among other things, it recommends that states align their infrastructure planning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, humanity’s blueprint for a better future. It also urges them to minimize the environmental footprint of construction projects and meaningfully engage local communities in infrastructure decision-making.
Return on investment
The report also highlighted the economic return on sustainable infrastructure, which includes renewable energy plants, eco-friendly public buildings, and low-carbon transport. Investing in renewables and energy efficiency, it said, creates five times more jobs than investments in fossil fuels. Similarly, investing in resilient infrastructure in developing countries can create a return of US$4 for every US$1 invested, according to the World Bank.
Alongside the report, UNEP released a series of case studies that showed how many countries are finding innovative ways to develop sustainable infrastructure.