Economic meltdown and the rise of nature - Investing in green infrastructure
by Tamas Marghescu, Regional Director for Pan-Europe
Our economies are tumbling and millions of people all over the world are losing their jobs. Politicians in the North are responding to the current global economic crisis in the same manner as their forebears responded to the Great Depression, around three quarters of a century ago. To stimulate an economic resurgence and create new employment, governments are inter alia, using public, financial resources to invest in the construction of infrastructure (roads, airports, railways etc.).
Indeed, On 15 January 2009, President Obama announced that the US will invest $825bn (about 2.8% of GDP) in a two-year stimulus package. This package includes:
- $6 billions in federal money for improvements and expansions of mass transit systems;
- $3 billions in construction grants for airports;
- $300 millions in grants for railroad improvements.
Meanwhile, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s governing coalition have agreed on the details of the country's biggest economic stimulus package since World War II – worth a total of 50 billion Euros. The two-year package includes a €18 billion new investment in the construction and reparation of the road and rail network, and of schools and universities.
Norway has also recently announced an economic stimulus package worth 20 billion kroner (USD 2.89 billion), of which the majority is earmarked to increase government spending on infrastructure projects. Other countries and their governments appear to be following suit.
In many cases, these infrastructure investments will have detrimental effects on the natural environment. New roads and railways that cut through pristine natural areas disrupt the functioning of ecosystems and the flow of services they provide. Forming the unrecognized backbone of our human societies and their economies, these ecosystem services are vital for our life on earth and fundamental to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The G8 Environment Ministers’ Meeting in Potsdam in 2007, triggered the commissioning of a “Stern-like Report on biodiversity". The report, presently underway, will attribute monetary values to ecosystem services, thus rendering nature, a valued economic asset.
Natural areas, and protected areas, are often perceived as obstacles to development. However it is the network of these areas that, as ‘green infrastructure’, facilitates the continuous flow of ecosystem services, such as the provision of clean drinking water, one of the key MDGs or the capacity to store carbon and adapt to climate change.
Realizing that steady flows of ecosystem services can only be maintained if important natural areas are afforded adequate protection, some governments have already begun to systematically secure these areas to ensure that such services remain as, or become State property.
If heads of states are investing in public infrastructure, then they ought to be investing in green infrastructure, thereby creating schemes for the improvement and enlargement of the network of protected areas. This would generate employment, in this case ‘green employment’ through the management of protected areas and through the creation of stepping stones and corridors between these areas. Such investments would at the same time help to solve the chronic funding problems which so constrain the management of protected areas. Furthermore, these investments will create new sinks for carbon sequestration and help safeguard existing sinks.
The mere mentioning that the system of protected areas could be seen as ‘green infrastructure’, triggered an immediate interest amongst World Bank officials, for whom the term infrastructure typically stands for bankable investment potential.
Later this year, under the Italian Presidency in Syracuse, the G8 Environment Ministers will meet again. Imparting from this meeting, they could ask the G8 Summit for a percentage of the funds foreseen in the economic rescue packages, to be specifically allocated to ‘green infrastructure’ investments. Needless to say those G8 leaders should also be encouraged to halt and reverse the continuing decline of nature and degradation of ecosystem services.
In every gloomy episode, there exist glimmers of hope and opportunity. This economic meltdown which confronts us all can yet become a turning point and a catalyst for the deserved rise in the perceived importance of nature, and usher the beginning of a new and very real green economy.