Sunday, March 22, 2015

Global Infrastructure Warning – Wrong-Headed Politics

If there's one thing most governments and even political parties appear to agree on it's a desire for more infrastructure, i.e. more roads, dams, bridges, power plants, airports and seaports, sewers, pipelines, and telecommunication systems. At the most recent G20 meeting in Brisbane, the world's biggest economies agreed on the need for more infrastructure around the globe, including a plan to boost infrastructure spending by trillions of dollars by 2030 and setting up a so-called Global Infrastructure Hub.

Yet, despite its political popularity, there are dark sides to infrastructure. Governments have tended to support monster projects that may sound impressive but don't always meet economic or social goals. Moreover, local people are sometimes left facing direct impacts from mega-projects, including evictions, loss of access to local resources and land, and devastated livelihoods. Then there are the environmental impacts: roads cut into pristine wildernesses, dams flooding primary rainforests, and, of course, the continuing rise of carbon emissions as even today most countries choose fossil-fuel based energy sources, instead of renewable projects.

It's in this context that 88 scientists, environmentalists, and thought-leaders have sent a stern letter to the G20 asking them to rethink business-as-usual when it comes to infrastructure, including focusing on smaller and more decentralized projects, conducting rigorous environmental assessments, and using improved economic assessments that adds in externalized impacts such as pollution. 
"This unprecedented level of investment in a 21st century economy must be approached with the highest sense of scrutiny and analysis," reads the letter. "Our survival, or our quality of life, may directly depend on the decisions these investments will set in motion."

While the signatories admit that business-as-usual has raised living standards in some parts of the world and brought about new technologies, it has also left the world with gaping inequality and an increasingly degraded planet. 
 "Corporate-led economic globalization...has transferred and consolidated power, effectively crippling the people’s governing rights. It has concentrated wealth within the top one percent and caused record-setting gaps between rich and poor," the letter reads, which was organized by Foundation Earth, a think tank established by Randy Hayes, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network. Some signatories include economist Herman Daly, ecologists Paul Ehrlich and William Laurance, environmentalist David Suzuki, author Deepak Chopra, and activist Van Jones among many others.

The letter goes on to state that many of the "
accomplishments" from the current economy "have also come at a great price to the health of the planet" and "are not sustainable for another century; let alone for the next few thousand years."
They further warn that increasing climate change and a booming global population could lead to a world of "incalculable tragedy for millions if not billions and much of the web of life." Such statements are not science fiction, but are backed up by decades of research across various scientific fields. Indeed, most of the world's governments have publicly recognized the global threat of climate change, natural resource depletion, and unsustainable practices in general, even as they have moved little toward rectifying them. "Developing more infrastructure in support of this failed economic model is doubling down on a dangerous vision. We must not lock-in problematic technologies for generations to come," the signatories write.

For one thing, the letter argues that investing what they say could equal $60-70 trillion over the next decade-and-a-half in mega-infrastructure projects could tip the world into catastrophic climate change scenarios. Governments have agreed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, however pledges to that end are still wide of the mark.
"The G20 infrastructure framework and action plans could hasten global warming beyond the two degree centigrade average rise that sovereign nations will seek to stay below at the climate meetings this December in Paris," reads the letter.

The letter's authors also criticize proposed financing for the infrastructure boom, including a blend of private and public fundraising to offset financial risks for investors, noting that this plan bears a "
scary resemblance to financial schemes involved in the sub-prime mortgage bundles that caused the global economic meltdown of 2008."
Indeed, infrastructure financing is often much more risky than portrayed by economists and governments.
"Studies show that for the past 70 years, nine out of ten infrastructure projects have experienced cost overruns, delays, and benefit shortfalls," argues the letter's authors, who add that "this process is beset with other problems like corruption, cost overruns, fiscal accountability, and human rights abuses."

The letter is all the more timely as the World Bank--one of the biggest funders of massive infrastructure projects--recently admitted after that it had little knowledge of the negative impacts inflicted on local people from its projects, such as resettlements.
We found several major problems. One is that we haven’t done a good enough job in overseeing projects involving resettlement; two, we haven’t implemented those plans well enough; and three, we haven’t put in place strong tracking systems to make sure that our policies were being followed," said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. "We must and will do better.

For years, activists have been calling out the World Bank for its involvement in controversial projects that have come with large social and environmental impacts, and it appears from the bank's own internal audit that activists may have been right.
So, what can be done?

The letter calls for a slew of changes in how infrastructure projects are evaluated and rolled out. These include rigorous environmental assessments by independent parties with a focus on how new projects may affect the nine recognized planetary boundaries. These boundaries include pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle among others. In addition, it calls for changes in how such projects are evaluated in economic terms, including full-cost accounting.
The point is not to internalize pollution externalities, but to eliminate most of those impacts in the first place," the letter reads.

On specifics, the group calls for doing away with most mega-dams, especially in the tropics where they are major emitters of methane; shifting away from industrialized agriculture towards "
sustainable agroecological farming"; and focusing solely on renewable energy projects.
No further coal power plants should be built and all existing ones should be phased out as soon as renewables (including geothermal) can replace them, followed by oil and gas infrastructure," the letter reads.

The signatories are not against infrastructure full-stop, far from it. But instead are advocating for a different type of infrastructure, one they call
"smaller-scale, ecologically smarter and more flexible" than the mega-projects that have become increasingly popular in recent decades. "The G20 must ask the most important questions as to whether these new mega-infrastructure projects will help to heal the Earth or seriously damage life-support systems causing modern civilization to further transgress the carrying capacity of what makes life possible. There is no vibrant economy or coveted economic growth on a nearly exhausted planet," reads the letter.

The G20 is due to meet in November in Turkey, one month before the Climate Summit in Paris.

It appears clear from the numbers who protest at G20 meetings that many world citizens are opposed to what they perceive as wrong-headed politics emanating from the G20's many meetings. The article here presents vastly important considerations affecting current and future generations which should be in front of the global populace for discussion and resolution and not left to decisions by politicians and 'leaders' who are obviously more interested in following the principles of capitalism than satisfying, or even listening to, the needs and desires of their citizens. This is not about naming and shaming or blaming individuals who would likely benefit monetarily from the vast infrastructure ventures planned but more specifically about a system which empowers individuals to exploit both people and resources in order to make a profit and in so doing become enriched at great expense to both the planet and its inhabitants.

The signatories of the letter are not politicians, but concerned individuals from a wide diversity of backgrounds around the world. Whilst presenting the letter within the context of capitalism they address the serious and pressing problems confronting humanity and the planet and critically address the probable outcomes of acting from the limited position of this system which is required to operate from the standpoint of making profits as the priority. Were this a world society organised with the common interests of people and planet in the forefront such individuals would be valuable to have on side. Their advised approach, one of precaution along with honest democratic decision making is an integral part of a true socialist system.

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