We can’t get out of the environmental crisis | George Monbiot


Dig for victory: this, diverted from the second world war, could be the slogan of our time. Governments around the world are using the pandemic and environmental crisis to justify a new infrastructure spending spree. In the United States, Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure framework “will make our economy more sustainable, resilient and just.” In the UK, Boris Johnson’s build back better agenda will “unite and level the country”, under the banner 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. If people have 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 necessary power lines to connect them to the grid. But we can no more build our way out of the environmental crisis than we can consume our way out. Why? Because new construction is subject to the eight golden rules of infrastructure procurement.

Rule 1 is that the primary purpose of new infrastructure is to enrich the people who commission or build it. Even when a public authority is considering a new program for reasonable reasons, it must first pass through a filter: will it make money for existing businesses? This is how, for example, plans to build new hydrogen infrastructure in the UK seem to have been hijacked. In August, the head of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Chris Jackson, resigned in protest against government plans to promote hydrogen made 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. It seems to bear the fingerprints of the gas industry everywhere.

For the same reason, many of the beneficial projects of Biden’s infrastructure framework and the US jobs plan have been scaled back or eliminated by Congress, leaving behind a catalog of wastes.

Most of the time, systems are created and driven not by a well-meaning public authority, but by industry demands. Their main purpose – to make money – is achieved before anyone else uses them. Only a few projects have the secondary objective of providing a public service.

Worldwide, construction is the most corrupt of all industries, often dominated by local mafias and driven by massive kickbacks to politicians. If infrastructure is to create a public benefit, it must be strictly and transparently regulated. Boris Johnson’s plans to deregulate the planning system and build a series of freeports, where businesses can escape many labour, customs and environmental rules, will ensure that the link between new construction and public needs becomes even more tenuous.

Rule 2 is that there is an inherent bias in selecting projects with the worst possible value for money. As economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg points out, “The projects that look the best on paper are those that accumulate the highest cost overruns and actually profit from the shortfalls”. Decisions are regularly based on misinformation and “delusional optimism”. HS2, whose nominal costs have fallen from £37.5bn in 2009 to somewhere between £72bn and £110bn today, as its purported financial benefits have fallen, is no exception: it is the world rule. By contrast, for £3billion a year, all bus tickets in the UK could be issued free of charge, a policy that would take more cars off the road and cut emissions much faster than this gigantic white elephant.

Rule 3 is that the environmental benefits of new programs are regularly overestimated while the costs are underestimated. HS2 is again iconic: although it has been promoted as a greener form of transport, government estimates suggest it could, overall, release more carbon than it saves. Bypasses intended to relieve traffic jams only divert congestion to the next pinch point. Large hydroelectric dams regularly produce less electricity than promised while destroying entire ecosystems.

One reason for the environmental costs of new infrastructure is the massive footprint of concrete, whose carbon emissions may never be recovered. Another is how new buildings create new demand. This is an explicit goal of the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy and its ’10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. But you don’t solve a problem by magnifying it.

Rule 4 is that in countries with high biodiversity, infrastructure is the main driver of habitat destruction. As an article in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution shows, new infrastructure and the deforestation it causes are highly “spatially contagious”. In other words, one pattern leads to another, and then another, inexorably expanding the frontier into crucial habitats. There is an almost perfect relationship between proximity to a road and the number of wildfires. Roads, above all else, tear through the forests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.

Rule 5 is that massive infrastructure projects disproportionately affect the territories belonging to indigenous peoples: for centuries, their lands have been treated as the borders of other peoples. Indigenous groups have fought long and hard to establish the principle of “free, prior and informed consent,” which 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 benign. A report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center shows how renewable energy programs have often driven a coach and horses through the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Rule 6 is that greener infrastructure will only produce a greener outcome if it is accompanied by the deliberate removal of existing infrastructure. To deal with climate and ecological emergencies, the key issue is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing. But while the UK government plans to fund new rail links, bus services and cycle lanes, it has no plans to scrap any road or track. On the contrary, it boasts of its “record investment in strategic roads” (£27 billion). Every major UK airport has expansion plans. Last week, for example, Gatwick Airport announced a consultation to increase its number of passengers from 46 million to 75 million a year.

Rule 7 is that wealthy nations tend to be surplus with certain types of infrastructure. One of the simplest, cheapest and most effective green policies is to reserve existing motorway lanes for buses, to create fast and efficient intercity service. But where is the money for construction companies in this?

Rule 8 is that environmental change cannot be brought about by infrastructure alone. To be effective, it must be accompanied by social change: travel less and travel better, for example. We must develop not only new railways and trams, 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 general rule is: if you want a greener world, resist the rising tide of concrete.

George Monbiot is a columnist for the Guardian


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