Dig for victory: such, reused from the second world war, could be the slogan of our time. Governments around the world are using the pandemic and the environmental crisis to justify a new frenzy in infrastructure spending. In the United States, Joe Biden’s bipartite infrastructure framework “Will make our economy more sustainable, resilient and fair”. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson rebuild better program will “unite and level the country”, under the sign of “green growth”. China’s Belt and Road Project will bring the world together in hyper-connected harmony and prosperity.
Of course, we need new infrastructure. In order for people to drive less, we need new public transport links and safe cycle paths. We need better water treatment plants and recycling centers, new wind and solar power plants and the power lines needed to connect them to the grid. But we can no more get out of the environmental crisis than we can get out of it through consumption. Why? Because new construction is subject to the eight golden rules for purchasing infrastructure.
Rule 1 is that the main purpose of a new infrastructure is to enrich the people who commission or build it. Even when a public authority is considering a new device for sensible reasons, it must first go through a filter: will it make money for existing companies? For example, plans to build a new hydrogen infrastructure in the UK appear to have been hijacked. In August, the president of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Chris Jackson, resigned to protest against the government’s plans to promote hydrogen from fossil methane, rather than producing it solely from renewable electricity. He explained that the government’s strategy locks the nation into the use of fossil fuels. He seems to have the gas industry’s fingerprints all over it.
For the same reason, many of the beneficial projects in Biden’s infrastructure framework and American employment plan has been cut or stripped by Congress, leaving behind a catalog of the uselessness of the pork barrel.
Most of the time, programs are created and conducted not by a well-meaning public authority, but by the demands of the industry. Their main goal – to make money – is achieved before anyone uses them. Only certain projects have the secondary purpose of providing a public service.
In the world, construction is the most corrupt of all industries, often dominated by local mafias and driven by massive bribes for politicians. If infrastructure is to create a public benefit, it must be regulated in a strict and transparent manner. Boris Johnson’s plans to deregulate the planning system and build a series of free ports, where companies can evade many labor, customs and environmental rules, will ensure that the link between the new building and public needs will become even stronger. more tenuous.
Rule 2 is that there is an inherent bias in selecting projects with the worst possible value for money. As the economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg points out, “The projects that are designed to look the best on paper are the projects that accumulate the highest cost overruns and shortfalls in reality.” Decisions are systematically based on misinformation and “delusional optimism”. HS2, whose nominal costs fell from £ 37.5 billion in 2009 to somewhere between £ 72 billion and £ 110 billion today, when its so-called financial profits have declined, this is no exception: it is the global rule. In contrast, for £ 3 billion a year, all UK bus tickets could be issued free of charge, a policy that would get more cars off the road and cut emissions much faster than that gigantic white elephant.
Rule 3 is that the environmental benefits of new programs are systematically overestimated while the costs are underestimated. The HS2 is iconic again: Although it has been promoted as a greener way to travel, government estimates suggest it could, overall, release more carbon than it saves. Bypasses intended to relieve traffic jams only move traffic jams to the next one pinch point. Large hydroelectric dams regularly produce less electricity than promised while destroying entire ecosystems.
One of the reasons for the environmental costs of new infrastructure is the massive footprint of concrete, the carbon emissions of which may never be recouped. Another is how a new building creates new demand. This is an explicit government goal national infrastructure strategy and his “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution”. But you don’t solve a problem by making it bigger.
Rule 4 is that in countries with high biodiversity, infrastructure is the main driver of habitat destruction. Like a paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, new infrastructures and the deforestation they cause are highly “spatially contagious”. In other words, one pattern leads to another, then another, inexorably extending the boundary into crucial habitats. There is an almost perfect relationship between the proximity of a road and the number of forest fires. Roads, above all, tear the forests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.
Rule 5 is that massive infrastructure projects disproportionately affect territories owned by indigenous peoples: for centuries their lands have been treated as the borders of others. Indigenous groups fought long and hard to establish the principle of “free, prior and informed consentWhich is recognized by the UN and in international law but ignored almost everywhere. This rule applies to all kinds of infrastructure, even those we consider harmless. A report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center shows how renewable energy programs have often driven a trainer and horses through the rights of indigenous peoples.
Rule 6 is that greener infrastructure will only produce a greener result if it is accompanied by a deliberate removal of existing infrastructure. In addressing climate and ecological emergencies, the key question is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing. But while the UK government intends to fund new rail links, bus services and cycle paths, it has no intention of removing a road or track. On the contrary, it boasts of its “record investment in strategic routes” (£ 27 billion). All major UK airports have expansion projects. Last week, for example, Gatwick Airport announced a consultation to increase its passenger numbers by 46 million to 75 million per year.
Rule 7 is that rich countries tend to have a surplus with certain types of infrastructure. One of the simplest, cheapest and most efficient green policies is to reserve existing highway lanes for buses, in order to create fast and efficient intercity service. But where is the money of the construction companies in there?
Rule 8 is that environmental change cannot be brought about by infrastructure alone. To be effective, it must be accompanied by social change: traveling less like traveling better, for example. We need to develop not only new railways and light rail lines, wind farms and power lines, but a new way of life.
But while governments and construction companies are happy to give us more of everything, the one thing we can’t have is less. The rule of thumb is this: If you want a greener world, resist the rising tide of concrete.