Reimagining Infrastructure for Sustainability

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The Paris Agreement of 2016 was a landmark achievement in international cooperation. It laid out a comprehensive set of objective measures for countries to reduce their footprint and thereby alleviate the adverse effects of climate change. Many governments have used this constraint as an opportunity to reinvent policy, introduce innovative technology, and shift cultural norms by the effective implementation of intelligent infrastructure. However, there are still many countries who fail to see the importance of the 2016 climate accords, which could result in destructive consequences.

Importance of Sustainable Infrastructure

Despite severe stalling of global movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, global CO2 emissions dropped just 5.5% compared to the same period in 2019. Given that national lockdowns are not an effective long-term strategy, other methods need to be devised if the requirements sanctified in the Paris Agreement are to be met. Prudently planning infrastructure is a powerful tool for boosting sustainability due to its large scale and long lifespan. Infrastructure projects implemented today will be in use for decades to come. Wise planning is imperative to mitigate the impact of large-scale projects into the future. However, planning infrastructure provides benefits beyond simply improving a country’s carbon footprint. With climate change creating dangerous obstacles like rising sea levels, shifting rain patterns, and increased severity of drastic weather events, building infrastructure with climate goals in mind could prevent major economic losses.

Reconstruction, being an integral part of any government’s response to natural shocks, could save countries up to $173 billion annually, the World Bank estimates[1]. Such percipient measures could be significantly cheaper in the short-term as well[2]. The City of Copenhagen found that adding more green spaces to the city, a natural solution, would be EUR 940 million cheaper than implementing traditional infrastructure. In stark contrast to this stands Mumbai’s Coastal Road Project, which requires the reclamation of 90 hectares of coastal land, despite an increasing severity of rainfall during the region’s monsoon months. This added burden to the city’s fragile coast is unaligned with climate accords and, with consistently rising sea-levels, could pose a serious threat to the city’s 24 million inhabitants. Therefore, it is incredibly important for governments to prioritize the construction of infrastructure that can satisfy their citizens’ short-term needs while being a sustainable option in the long run.

LEED Certification

Green buildings are structures that place energy usage, water usage, and environmental quality as its foremost consideration. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building review system in the world. Available for virtually all building types, LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings . As a result, LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership. LEED For Cities and Communities, a specialized branch within the organization, is committed to working with local governments and constituencies to better plan for a sustainable future. Attaining a LEED certification, especially on the large scale of a city or community, is a reliable metric for leaders to ensure that their policies are headed in the right direction. It should, therefore, be a priority for politicians, CEOs, and local leaders to partner with this organization.

Methods for achieving planned infrastructure

With more countries adopting sustainable alternatives to urban planning, it is evident that great progress can be made in the sector. For example, about 50% of the estimated $1.5 trillion investment in China’s colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is currently being dedicated towards coal-based sectors. If, however, an emphasis is placed on directing these funds towards greener alternatives by embracing modern transport technologies and infrastructure, many ambitious climate goals could still be met. Thus, it benefits to analyze the various avenues available to planners and policymakers in search of greener alternatives.

Nature-based Solutions

An excellent option for developing countries, nature-based solutions are often low-in-cost and easier to implement than traditional infrastructure. Multiple examples currently exist where countries and companies have successfully made use of their naturalistic capabilities to improve urban planning:

·     Dow Chemicals – The company saved an estimated $120 million by implementing nature-based solutions around their plants globally. A notable example of this is the installation of green retaining walls in place of concrete walls in Aratu, Brazil to combat erosion and surface runoff.

·      Quintana Roo, Mexico – This region’s “Coastal Zone Management Trust” utilizes funds to preserve and maintain coral reefs. The reefs, a vital coastal asset, not only protect the coast against storms and extreme weather, but also reinforce the area’s tourism industry.

From these examples, it is easy to understand the appeal of using naturally available resources to build durable infrastructure. However, this method is limited by its availability and is not suitable for mitigating all kinds of risk.

Strategy, Foresight, and Analysis

It is of primary importance for countries to establish a dedicated wing to gain foresight in order to develop a sound strategy for building infrastructure with climate goals in mind. Predicting the future is undeniably hard; hence, accounting for complexity and uncertainty while constructing models can be economically valuable. The work of organizations such as Policy Horizons Canada, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (Japan), and the Centre for Strategic Futures (Singapore) can beneficially inform crucial policy decisions made by governments. This verifiable data is especially useful when used for purposes such as fund-raising and tax increases. Furthermore, planning infrastructure specifically with an adaptive and flexible approach has added importance, given that an incorrect strategy to address issues could be more detrimental than having no intervention whatsoever [3]. Invariably, there have been noteworthy infrastructure projects that have succeeded by keeping a flexible development process in mind:

·      The Netherlands’ Delta Program – Established to protect against flood risks and provide the country with freshwater resources, the “Adaptive Delta Management” fund has been adopted to provide a flexible, long-term system to manage risks.

·     The Thames Estuary 2100 Project – To protect London against flooding during the 21st century, the Environment Agency had to decide if, and when, to replace the Thames Barrier. Their process included looking at a list of potential outcomes by 2100 and working backward to determine which policies implemented today would be required to successfully protect the city.

Working diligently with a specialized team of professionals to determine the best approach to building infrastructure, using forecasting tools to insure against an increasingly uncertain future, is essential to a nation’s progress towards a sustainable model of growth.


In keeping up with the world’s rapid technological advancements, infrastructure development and urban planning is going to evolve significantly over the course of the next century. The impact of this change on the state of our climate is still unknown, but governments must think critically about the impact of their infrastructure decisions, more so than they have since 2016. Relying on future generations to pay off the burgeoning environmental debt of a prolonged global industrialization is untenable, and prompt action is vital if sufficient damage is to be reversed. Countries should learn from each other’s unique methodologies and create procedures that work for their citizens, but the ultimate goal of such development should stay focused on sustainability.


[1] Hallegatte,  S., J.  Rentschler and B.  Walsh (2018), Building Back Better: Achieving Resilience through Stronger, Faster, and More Inclusive Post-Disaster Reconstruction, World Bank Group, Washington, DC,

[2] Jones, H., D. Hole and E. Zavaleta (2012), “Harnessing nature to help people adapt to climate change”, Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2/7, pp. 504-509,

[3] Cervigni, R. et al. (2015), Enhancing the Climate Resilience of Africa’s Infrastructure: The Power and Water Sectors, World Bank, Washington, DC,

Student at Duke University
More posts by Pranav Bajpai.
Reimagining Infrastructure for Sustainability
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