We cannot get out of the environmental crisis | Georges monbiot
Dig for victory: such, reused from World War II, could be the slogan of our time. Governments around the world are using the pandemic and the environmental crisis to justify a new frenzy in infrastructure spending. 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 program 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. In order for people 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 power lines needed to connect them to the grid. But we can no more get out of the environmental crisis than we can get out of it through consumption. Why? Because new construction is subject to the eight golden rules for purchasing infrastructure.
Rule 1 is that the primary purpose of a new infrastructure is to enrich the people who commission or build it. Even when a public authority is considering a new device for reasonable reasons, it must first go through a filter: will it make money for existing companies? For example, plans to build a new hydrogen infrastructure in the UK appear to have been hijacked. In August, the president 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 from renewable electricity alone. . He explained that the government’s strategy locks the nation into the use of fossil fuels. He seems to have the gas industry’s fingerprints all over it.
For the same reason, many beneficial projects of Biden’s infrastructure framework and the U.S. Jobs Plan have been curtailed or canceled by Congress, leaving behind a catalog of uselessness.
Most of the time, programs are created and conducted not by a well-meaning public authority, but by the demands of the industry. Their main goal – to make money – is fulfilled before anyone uses them. Only certain projects have the secondary purpose of providing a public service.
Around the world, construction is the most corrupt of all industries, often dominated by local mafias and driven by massive bribes for politicians. If infrastructure is to create a public benefit, it must be regulated in a strict and transparent manner. Boris Johnson’s plans to deregulate the planning system and build a series of free ports, where companies can evade many labor, customs and environmental rules, will ensure that the link between the new building and public needs will become even stronger. 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 are designed to look the best on paper are the projects that accumulate the highest cost overruns and benefit from the deficits in reality”. Decisions are systematically 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 declined, is no exception: this is the world rule. In contrast, for £ 3 billion a year, all UK bus tickets could be issued for free, a policy that would get more cars off the road and cut emissions much faster than that gigantic white elephant.
Rule 3 is that the environmental benefits of new programs are systematically overestimated while the costs are underestimated. The HS2 is iconic again: Although it has been promoted as a greener form of transportation, government estimates suggest that it could, overall, release more carbon than it saves. Bypasses meant to relieve traffic congestion only move the congestion to the next pinch point. Large hydroelectric dams regularly produce less electricity than promised while destroying entire ecosystems.
One of the reasons for the environmental costs of new infrastructure is the massive footprint of concrete, the carbon emissions of which may never be recouped. Another is how a new building creates 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 making it bigger.
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, then another, inexorably extending the boundary into crucial habitats. There is an almost perfect relationship between the proximity of a road and the number of forest fires. Roads, above all, tear the forests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.
Rule 5 is that massive infrastructure projects disproportionately affect territories owned by indigenous peoples: for centuries their lands have been treated as the borders of others. Indigenous groups 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 harmless. A report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center shows how renewable energy programs have often led a trainer and horses to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Rule 6 is that greener infrastructure will only produce a greener result if it is accompanied by a deliberate removal of existing infrastructure. In addressing climate and ecological emergencies, the key question is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing. But while the UK government intends to fund new rail links, bus services and cycle paths, it has no intention of removing a road or track. On the contrary, it boasts of its “record investment in strategic routes” (£ 27 billion). All major UK airports have expansion plans. Last week, for example, Gatwick Airport announced a consultation to increase passenger numbers from 46 million to 75 million per year.
Rule 7 is that rich countries tend to have a surplus with certain types of infrastructure. One of the simplest, cheapest and most effective green policies is to reserve existing highway lanes for buses, in order to create fast and efficient intercity service. But where is the money of the construction companies in there?
Rule 8 is that environmental change cannot be brought about by infrastructure alone. To be effective, it must be accompanied by social change: traveling less like traveling better, for example. We need to develop not only new railways and light rail lines, 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 rule of thumb is this: If you want a greener world, resist the rising tide of concrete.