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Making Infrastructure Green

Green infrastructure is a great enabler and a foundation for improved incomes, livelihoods and human well-being that will be critical to an Asia-Pacific Green Deal.

The article below was originally published as a UNESCAP Expert Blog, co-authored with Tientip Subhanij.

Infrastructure is a critical component that connects all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, investment in infrastructure was well below the levels needed to achieve the SDGs. Infrastructure is the great enabler, serving as the platform on which improved incomes, livelihoods and human well-being can be delivered.

It is well known that one of the critical ingredients of success in Asia’s development path has been investment in infrastructure. Efficient methods to generate power and transport goods to major markets have allowed the region's economies and societies to develop global export industries that have, in turn, created jobs and opportunities for many millions of people. Today more than ever, we also need high-speed information infrastructure to support innovation in goods and services.

In the future, achieving high-quality infrastructure development can positively impact economic output via higher construction activity and increased employment. A recent massive wave of investment in infrastructure has the potential to be transformative for the Asia-Pacific region. It will support economic recovery and has the potential to address climate change and embed new technologies and green economic development models for a more sustainable future.

On 26 August, ESCAP will convene the Asia-Pacific Business Forum under the theme “Towards an Asia-Pacific Green Deal for Business” The ESCAP Sustainable Business Network (ESBN) will launch the Green Deal for Business Declaration, which consists of five pillars, namely, green energy, green infrastructure, green finance, green innovation and green production, consumption and waste. Green infrastructure, among all pillars, will play a critical role as none of the green transformations can be achieved without some direct or indirect input from infrastructure.

At COP26 in Glasgow last year, world leaders agreed that we must move into “emergency mode” to address climate change.

Now and in the future, therefore, we need to make new infrastructure green and sustainable. That means leveraging the investments we will make in our future prosperity to ensure that those same investments help us transform how we power, produce, consume and manage our waste, as well as how we design our cities and move around in the future. We must use the next phase of infrastructure investment to restructure our economies to become sustainable. If we don’t, the next generation will suffer the consequences of our lack of vision.

Across the world, economies are making the structural shift from polluting fossil fuel energy production to zero pollution renewable energy, zero-emission vehicles, more efficient infrastructure and “smart cities.” Financial institutions are beginning to price in climate risk, making it likely investment in old, polluting industries will decline, and finance will be directed to new, green investment opportunities.

A proliferation of Environmental, Social and Governance standards has also been a welcome response to the sustainability challenge, and international infrastructure investment will benefit from globally consistent, transparent baseline standards, which are under development by the new International Sustainability Standards Board.

Unfortunately, relatively few companies in the Asia-Pacific region have adopted net-zero carbon emission strategies to date. Still, there are encouraging signs with the major economies of the region setting goals to reduce carbon intensity and to reach net zero carbon in the decades ahead. Members of the Asia-Pacific community, large and small, need to make this change for the sake of our future regional and global safety and security.

If we do not grasp the opportunity of this green transformation and turn our infrastructure green by mid-century, we risk driving global warming beyond 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns will create worsening natural disasters, raised sea levels, food insecurity and other severe and dangerous effects on the global environment.

In this context, the Asia-Pacific region's public and private sectors have an important role in shifting to economic development underpinned by green and sustainable infrastructure. We all have shared vulnerabilities in the face of the climate crisis. By working together to invest in infrastructure investment solutions that address the climate crisis, it is within our power for the Asia-Pacific region to once again lead the world's development -- this time, development that is sustainable.

The Green Deal for Business Declaration, an initiative of ESBN, which will be announced at the Asia-Pacific Business Forum on 26 August, will provide an exciting opportunity for a new development paradigm and for businesses to go on a green transformative path. We urge companies across Asia-Pacific region – whether big or small-- to pledge support and work in partnership with us towards a more sustainable and better future.

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