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October 2021
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New tool helps planners and policy makers ensure global infrastructure development is sustainable

Miriam Mendes, Programme Manager of ITRC,

By Miriam Mendes, Programme Manager of ITRC, based at The Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

A new tool from the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and University of Oxford-led Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) has been launched to ensure that infrastructure is developed to support achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs were adopted in 2015 and agreed by 193 countries from developing and emerging nations to developed countries. They were designed to create a better and more sustainable future for people worldwide.

A recent study published in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability has found that fulfilment of the majority of SDG targets will depend on infrastructure systems.

Sustainable infrastructure is better-designed and will save money in the long-term, explains co-author and Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford, Jim Hall: “Global spend on infrastructure investment is set to reach $97 trillion by 2040[i] but this money could be spent more wisely, creating infrastructure that works with nature to serve the needs of the people, keeping us on track to bring carbon emission to zero, and that is designed to be resilient to climatic extremes and other shocks.”

The new tool, SustainABLE, has been to designed to harness this fundamental research – providing development practitioners with real-world practical actions to ensure that their infrastructure project supports achievement of the different targets of the SDGs.

Scott Thacker, Senior Analyst at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), explains, “We’ve created SustainABLE as an easy to follow online tool available to anyone who wants to ensure the SDGs are at the heart of their infrastructure projects. This is the first time that the SDGs have been captured in this way, providing a very clear walkthrough and step-by-step guide to understand the influence of infrastructure on each target and provide tangible actions for ensuring that influence is realised.”

SustainABLE demonstrates how infrastructure systems from energy to water, waste, transport, digital communications, education, healthcare and other social infrastructure can help to ensure progress is made towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Jim Hall comments, “Infrastructure investment is at an all-time high globally. An ever-increasing number of decisions are being made now that will lock-in patterns of development for future generations. It’s critical that policy makers establish long term visions for sustainable national infrastructure systems, informed by the SDGs, and develop adaptable plans that can demonstrably deliver their vision. The new SustainABLE tool will be a central plank in establishing how infrastructure can help satisfy the SDGs.”

Scott Thacker of UNOPS adds, “With $2.3 trillion[ii] being spent per year on global capital infrastructure investment, funding is at an all time high. However, in some areas of the world there is still a lack of the most basic infrastructure, infrastructure that’s designed to satisfy future population growth, or to protect society from the harmful impacts of climate change.”

SustainABLE’s first module is now available for users to map the gender-related SDG targets of women’s empowerment and infrastructure against areas including energy, transport, water, solid waste, ICT, health, education, government and housing. Specific subsectors can also be targeted such as air transport, surface water management, or emergency response.

Modules scheduled to be launched include risk and reliance, climate mitigation, environmental protection, with others in development.

SustainABLE will help infrastructure decision-makers from international development bodies, development banks and governments to embed sustainability in infrastructure projects in developing and emerging nations and first world economies to make better use of their budget.

Jim Hall adds, “Built well, infrastructure can demonstrably and positively contribute to areas from economic prosperity and employment to health and education and the safeguarding of the planet’s natural resources. However, costly infrastructure is not always planned properly for the long-term, in consideration of the impact of one infrastructure on another, to take into account vulnerability to natural or manmade hazards, or in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by 193 countries in 2015.”

The paper published in Nature Sustainability focuses on the interplay between the physical and societal aspects of infrastructure systems, such as how long-lived assets shape future patterns of behaviour and development.

It classifies direct and indirect influences of infrastructure services on SDG goals and target outcomes. It also identifies functions where the infrastructure provides a unique contribution to the SDG target, and those where a pair or more than one infrastructure provides a shared contribution to the SDG target.

The new SustainABLE tool and the paper published in Nature Sustainability will be of interest to policy makers in government, investment banks, NGOs, developers involved in infrastructure projects, as well as researchers and academics.


Try SustainABLE for yourself:

[i] Global Infrastructure Outlook forecast estimates as at April 5 2019

[ii] [CD: add reference 17 from paper]

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