Nature is our infrastructure

Posted on 15 January 2021

To truly ‘build’ back better, we must plan our infrastructure with nature in mind and harness its power in the face of climate change, write Helena Wright, Hanna Helsingen and Urvana Menon.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, causing suffering for many people around the world, it is still unclear how the virus will affect us in the long term. In terms of infrastructure development, there have been increasing calls to ‘build back better’ as part of a green recovery from the pandemic, including building long-term resilient infrastructure.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that, in the face of climate change, the ‘conventional’ way of building infrastructure will not be sustainable in the long term. As recent wildfires in Australia and floods in Southeast Asia have shown us, the impacts of climate change are already upon us and will impact all parts of the world.

Building better

Infrastructure makes up more than 60% of global emissions. If routed through ecologically sensitive landscapes (such as protected areas), it can also increase vulnerability to climate change due to fragmentation and degradation of ecosystems. It can also lead to other risks - for example, the catastrophic wildfires in California led to the world’s first climate-change bankruptcy, as a company was found liable for damage because its power lines had potentially caused the wildfires.

In Myanmar, the government has vowed to build back better from the crisis, but this needs to be translated to concrete steps, including taking advantage of the opportunities for investment in green infrastructure. The tender for 30 solar power projects last year was a good example of what a green and just recovery can look like. The recovery should emphasize climate-resilient development and identify investments in nature-based solutions and a thorough consideration of biodiversity risks as critical for a sustainable recovery. The plans should also include flood-resilient designs that conserve important wetlands.

Climate change makes action on resilience even more necessary and attractive: on average, it doubles the net benefits from resilience. Incorporating natural capital (i.e the stock of natural ecosystems that produces benefits to people in the form of ecosystem services) in infrastructure planning can result in projects that are more cost-effective, have enhanced net economic benefits and are more resilient in the face of climate change, urbanization and other social and environmental changes.

Natural protection

Back in 2015, WWF worked on a report about the Road to Dawei in Myanmar which has some interesting findings that are still relevant for engineers and government planners as we respond to the current crisis. The report found roads impact on nature, but at the same time, roads depend on nature as well.

For example, roads impact on nature and forests by leading to habitat loss, and this can also degrade many benefits that people obtain from nature, such as clean water or protection against floods. Protecting the intact forest has various tangible economic benefits, including sediment retention and reduced flood risk, as vegetation can reduce peak storm flows by increasing water storage – and that can reduce flood risks to roads. Intact vegetation can also prevent soil erosion and landslides that would affect the road.

Combining green and gray infrastructure can provide lower-cost, more resilient, and more sustainable infrastructure solutions. This is important for road safety and reducing maintenance costs. Engineers who are building a conventional piece of infrastructure can make use of nature-based solutions to enhance resilience of the road users and the infrastructure itself. This will be increasingly important in a context where flooding and landslides may become more frequent as a result of climate change.

Greener cities

Forests and trees also have a value in protecting infrastructure in cities, as well. In nearby Singapore, trees are an important part of the cityscape because there are around 66 metres squared of green space per person, reportedly making it Asia’s greenest city. This was achieved by programs such as the Tree Planting Day introduced in 1971. Singapore’s green plot ratio means for every metre square of public building, developers are required to provide 4.5 times this amount of green space.

Urban trees have a huge economic value for cities. Researchers have estimated that in 10 megacities, trees carry a payoff of roughly $500 million - and if you scaled this up across the world, the benefits would be even greater. The benefits include reducing air pollution and improving people’s health, reducing flooding, managing stormwater and making cities better places to live.

Recent research found that trees can lower the temperature in urban areas by 5 or 6 degrees. This is a fantastic opportunity to use trees' natural capacity to be ‘air conditioners’ – especially as air conditioning is expected to make up 12% of global power use by the middle of the century.

However, the benefits of nature such as forests and trees are frequently not valued or undervalued during conventional infrastructure planning. Perhaps one answer is to mainstream the knowledge and understanding of the benefits of nature into conventional engineering courses at universities across Asia. 

WWF is now doing this in Myanmar, working with world renowned transport ecology experts to develop Myanmar’s first transport ecology diploma course for professionals and collaborating with universities and civil engineering departments to integrate ecology into undergraduate and graduate programs. The next generation of engineers and urban planners will need to face a new world of climate change impacts – and will need to understand how to approach this using the tools nature can provide.

It is vital to remember that ultimately, nature is our infrastructure. While we have built a world of concrete infrastructure to support our lives and livelihoods, we are still dependent on natural resources such as food, clean air and clean water. If we start building and planning with nature in mind, we can capture and maintain the existing benefits that we get from nature. It is also essential for our survival to invest in nature, in order to continue to benefit from it.

Helena Wright, WWF-Singapore, Hanna Helsingen, WWF-Myanmar and Urvana Menon, WWF-Myanmar
The Lakehlaaii community forest in Tanintharyi division, Myanmar.
© Hkun Lat/WWF