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.

Scientific group worries about future of Cambodian and S.E. Asian environments

The largest-ever gathering of tropical biologists and environmental scientists to meet in Cambodia has expressed strong concerns about several development trends in the country, and in Southeast Asia generally. 

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Over 300 scientists from 29 nations met in Phnom Penh this week, representing the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC). 

The scientists expressed their concerns in a document entitled the "Phnom Penh Declaration" (which you can download here).

“We have a number of worries, but our most immediate concern is a proposed road that would slice through vitally important forest in Mondulkuri Province in eastern Cambodia, from Srea Ampos to Kbal Damrei,” said Seng Teak, Conservation Director, WWF Greater Mekong.

“This road would clearly imperil one of the biologically richest forests in Indochina, an area that provides critical habitat for rare wildlife such as Elephants, Leopards, and Banteng, as well as over 230 bird species,” said Mr Teak.

“Unfortunately, roads that cut into wilderness areas like that in Mondulkuri almost always open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems, such as illegal logging, poaching, and land clearing,” said William Laurance, a former ATBC president and director of ALERT.  Laurance has studied the environmental impacts of roads and infrastructure across the tropics.

“This is a critical time for decisions impacting wildlife and natural resources in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia,” said Teak.  “There are huge plans ahead for new roads, dams, mining projects, and other infrastructure that could have severe environmental impacts.”

“It’s absolutely vital that there be rigorous environmental impact assessments done before any major project is undertaken,” said Teak.  “And we need a precautionary approach to projects—to look at them very carefully to ensure that they really are essential.”

“If we don’t, we could lose a lot of the wildlife and natural ecosystems that make Cambodia unique, and that form the basis of our thriving and highly profitable tourism industry,” said Teak.

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.

 

The world's two most dangerous environmental trends

What are the two biggest direct threats to our natural world?  One could debate this question endlessly but here are my personal candidates for two recent developments that are especially environmentally perilous:

Growing perils for nature...

Growing perils for nature...

1) The G20's stunning plans for infrastructure expansion

Believe it or not, the leaders of the G20 nations -- the world's 20 largest economies -- committed during their recent global summit in Brisbane, Australia to spend an astonishing 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030

This staggering sum will come from a variety of sources, such as public-private partnerships, pension funds, bilateral aid, and the major development banks.  This will be the single biggest financial transaction in human history -- and the environmental impacts will be Earth-shaking

Expect massive increases in roads, hydroelectric dams, mining projects, gas lines, and power lines, all across the planet.  Such projects will open up many of the world's last surviving wild areas and lead to an avalanche of new development pressures.

2) The rise of the Chinese and Brazilian development banks

An equally alarming trend is that the nature of infrastructure funding is changing. 

Large funding bodies such as the World Bank and the African, Asian, and Inter-American Development banks -- which, after many years of bearing criticism, have worked to develop and implement some environmental safeguards -- are increasingly being supplanted by the heavily funded and far more aggressive Chinese (AIIB) and Brazilian (BNDES) development banks. 

We've previously critiqued BNDES, but the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is, arguably, even worse.

The Chinese and Brazilian banks are funding massive numbers of developments worldwide, and generally place a much lower priority on environmental concerns than do many other infrastructure funders and donors.      

Conservationists and scientists will have to redouble their efforts to meet the challenges posed by these two landmark -- and alarming -- trends.

-Bill Laurance

 

Will India slash environmental protections?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us about worrying developments in his Indian homeland:

A recent news article in Nature reports that Indian ecologists are alarmed about the newly elected government approving big development projects without adequate environmental impact assessments (EIAs). 

They have good reasons to be afraid. 

At least the developers are happy...

At least the developers are happy...

The government is fast-tracking a wide range of approvals for major road, dam, mine, and infrastructure projects. 

In India and many other democracies today, environmental laws are considered by politicians to be a hurdle to development

Environmental laws are labeled red-tape, EIAs are deemed arbitrary, and environmentalists are slagged off as biased activists who act against the greater interest of the nation.

But is this really the case? 

In a corrupt society like India's, red-tape is really a euphemism for 'bargain'.  Favors are purchased from the government -- which then turns a blind eye to a project's real environmental impacts.

Are EIAs 'arbitrary'?  Most are not.  They are merely not up to an acceptable standard -- and the legal framework in any case is largely inadequate.

Environmentalists are delaying the nation's development?  Hardly. 

In reality, many problems are delaying national progress by reducing India's GDP, such as the inordinate number of traffic deaths on Indian roads, pollution, life-style-related epidemics, and widespread nepotism

In short, protecting biodiversity never sank a nation.

Can the newly elected government of India reduce red tape and economic hurdles while safeguarding its unique biological heritage? 

The signs are not promising.  With an avalanche of new development projects likely to be approved very quickly, the challenges for Indian biodiversity are likely to come hard and fast.