Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

Why biodiversity is declining even as protected areas increase

Why is biodiversity around the world in so much trouble, even though we keep adding new protected areas?  A new paper led by Australian researcher Ro Hill provides a compelling explanation.  Here, Ro summarizes her and her colleagues' key findings:

We’ve expanded the protected area coverage around the globe, to around 15% of the land surface -- with more than a quarter of all countries already exceeding the agreed global target of 17% by 2020.  But biodiversity loss continues apace.

Biodiversity in trouble...

Biodiversity in trouble...

Why?   Our new paper models how this paradox arises in tropical forests, from competition between governance regimes, and makes four important points:

1. The forces that drive forest protection do not necessarily oppose those that drive forest clearance for development. 

The diagram above says it all: we can keep expanding the developed area of the planet AND expanding protected areas as long as there are still some remaining forested habitats.
 
The power of the “develop” and “protect” governance regimes determines the strength of the forces that move the boundaries between areas under protection, areas of remaining forest habitat, and areas under development.

The leaders of the G20 nations recently gave a huge boost to the power of development regimes by promising to invest 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030.  There is no such investment for conservation -- nothing even close!

2.   The power of the “protect” governance regime can actually be lowered as protected areas increase.
 
People may believe that when new protected areas are created, there are more natural areas –- whereas the reality is that every day there are less.  This lowers public concerns about risks from biodiversity loss, decreasing pressure on politicians and weakening the power of the “protect” governance regime.
 
3.  Prioritizing protected area placement by proximity to active agricultural frontiers would make them more effective.

Targets should include both the desired Area under protection AND the absolute limits on Area under development through habitat conversion.

4.  Strengthening the forces that maintain and restore habitat (and oppose its development) is vital to halt biodiversity loss.

This means we must generally favor land-sharing as a conservation strategy rather than land-sparing.  The governance forces that drive land sparing don’t necessarily oppose the governance forces that drive forest clearance for development, so you still get net loss.
 
Hence, strengthening the relative power of land-sharing governance regimes (i.e. those that maintain traditional, sustainable land use, alternative sustainable land use, or restore degraded habitat) is likely, we argue, to have a greater long-term benefit for biodiversity conservation.

Unraveling how governance and power affect biodiversity conservation is a new frontier in conservation science -– but this paper makes an important start and shows where we need to focus our attention.

 

ALERT scientists tell G20 leaders to stop the 'infrastructure insanity'!

This has been a big week for ALERT. 

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road  (Google Earth).

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road (Google Earth).

On March 5, the top-ranked journal Current Biology published a hard-hitting paper -- led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and including ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents -- that the G20's plan for infrastructure expansion bordered on ecological insanity.

In case you haven't been following this story, during its meeting late last year in Australia, the G20 leaders -- who lead the world's 20 biggest economies -- pledged to invest $60-70 trillion US dollars globally in new roads, hydroelectric dams, power lines, gas lines, mines, fossil-fuel projects, and other infrastructure over the next 15 years.

To put that number in perspective, the current value of all infrastructure across the entire planet today is roughly $50 trillion

So, we're talking about more than doubling the amount of global infrastructure in a very short period of time.

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature  (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Nobody is denying that the world needs better and more infrastructure -- especially developing nations trying to improve their economic and social conditions.

But to subject the planet to an unprecedented tsunami like this is almost unfathomable.  The environmental consequences -- the impacts on nature and native ecosystems -- simply boggle the mind

One bit of good news is that the Current Biology paper is being used as the scientific foundation -- by scores of the world's top scientists, environmental leaders, and other luminaries -- to lobby the G20 leaders to back down from their pledge to hyper-drive global infrastructure

The paper lays out nine specific recommendations to help make infrastructure projects environmentally safer and more sustainable.  It's no magic bullet, but if taken seriously these recommendations could make a real difference.

Let's hope the G20 listens.  If they don't, they'll be guilty -- and this is no exaggeration -- of promulgating the worst environmental calamity in human history.