A Call for Integrated Planning for Sustainable Infrastructure

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Senior Economist, UN Environment
25 June 2018

Infrastructure – including water supply and sanitation, flood protection, roads and transport, and energy and telecommunications – is central to achieving green growth and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving SDG 1 on poverty eradication, for example, is impossible without providing access to energy and water. Sustainable Development Goal 2 on food security relies on irrigation systems in many countries. Buildings and transport for clinics and hospitals are essential for SDG 3 on health. And SDG 9 calls explicitly for resilient infrastructure.

For infrastructure to contribute to the SDGs and green growth, however, integrated planning is required. Integrated planning for sustainable infrastructure is necessary to support the transition away from traditional brown infrastructures that cause significant pollution and resource waste. It is necessary to ensure that the economic, social and environmental implications of potential infrastructure projects are considered holistically from the earliest stages of planning and development. It is also essential for ensuring coordination between different infrastructure sectors such as transport, energy and water.

The current state of integrated planning for infrastructure

The issue of integrated planning for infrastructure has long been recognized. In 2007, OECD’s “Infrastructure to 2030” project called for “improved integration of the different levels of government in the design, planning and delivery of infrastructure”. Ten years later, the “Global Infrastructure Connectivity Alliance” hosted by the World Bank identified “multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional planning approaches with sustainable development objectives as a core framework” as a major priority.

In practice, however, most of the international discussions on infrastructure tend to focus on financing to overcome infrastructure gaps. The annual “Global Infrastructure Forum” is led mostly by multilateral development banks, which tend to place emphasis on infrastructure financing and investment. To be sure, safeguards and impact assessments – the core issues for environmental groups – are high on MDBs’ radar screens, but global efforts to embed these issues within countries’ infrastructure planning institutions and capabilities appear lacking. 

Hence, it is challenging to find great examples of integrated infrastructure planning, except at the specific project level. Even in China, a country known for its emphasis on planning, efforts to integrate spatial plans – which have important implications for infrastructure development – across different levels of government only started a few years ago. China’s planning for the development of the 2000 km2 “Xiongan New Area”, meant to alleviate infrastructure pressure on Beijing, will be an interesting case to watch given its one-thousand-year planning horizon (yes, one thousand years).

A better-documented case for integrated infrastructure planning is found in the UK, and Scotland in particular. The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is an independent body that advises on infrastructure needs and solutions. It encourages long-term planning and helps to depoliticize infrastructure choices by providing Parliament with a National Infrastructure Assessment to guide national-level decisions. Scotland’s National Planning Framework provides a spatial representation of the country’s priorities, thereby helping to ensure that integration and sustainability are central to infrastructure decisions and that different infrastructure such as transport, energy and waste are viewed as a system.

The future of integrated infrastructure planning for SDGs and green growth

Infrastructure development in the coming decades is expected to grow exponentially and the world needs to make commensurate investment in integrated planning to ensure that new infrastructure is sustainable. Without integrated planning that promotes sustainability principles and coordination between different infrastructure sectors, infrastructure will likely be a source of negative environmental and social impacts over the coming decades and opportunities will be lost for synergistically advancing the SDGs and green growth. Barriers to integrated infrastructure planning must be addressed, including insufficient institutional capacity, lack of expertise and political and cultural challenges at the national level.

Although significant work is necessary to mainstream integrated planning for sustainable infrastructure, efforts on this topic are developing. The Geneva Forum for Sustainable Infrastructure, initiated by UN Environment in partnership with like-minded institutions, is one notable example. The Geneva Forum seeks to bring the issue of integrated infrastructure planning onto global, regional and national policy agendas, by fostering a community of individuals and institutions committed to ensuring the integration of sustainability considerations into infrastructure development.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.