Sustainable infrastructure: Looking beyond man-made value

Every few decades, we have an opportunity to make a drastic change to the way we live our lives. We get a chance to design the building blocks of our daily routines, the infrastructure that will support and accompany us for the years to come - from the trains and trams we ride, the offices we work in, to the energy that powers our homes. But it's also an opportunity for us to decide what we value, as we make decisions that determine the fate of the world's natural infrastructure, from forests that clean our air to the soil that produces our food.

Only sustainable infrastructure - one that refuses to trade long-term sustainability for short-term gains - will bring about the transformative change we need. It is key to our ability to deliver the promises of prosperity and sustainability at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And to our ability to realise the Paris Agreement on climate change, whose rapid entry into force this week is proof of our collective ambition to further limit global warming and preserve our future.

Making explicit this link between sustainable infrastructure, development and climate change is a new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. It delivers a strong defence of the potential yields of sustainable infrastructure, and a stark warning of the economic, social and environmental losses if we fail to make the right investment decisions today. Most of all, the Commission, led by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and which I am a member of, again furthers the case that we can achieve economic prosperity and development, while addressing climate change.

The report estimates that, across man-made and natural infrastructure, the need for investment stands at US$90 trillion over the next 15 years. Two-thirds of that will go to emerging markets.

But it's clear that money alone isn't enough. The report outlines an action plan - for public and private sector actors to champion - and a short time span of two to three years to deliver. We must tackle price distortions, including fossil fuel subsidies. We must have the right policies and institutions if we want to create the right conditions for investment. That will facilitate investments in clean tech. And, crucially, we must accelerate the greening of the financial system.

Land is a great example of how we can manage and invest in sustainable infrastructure for economic, social and environmental gains. Its use - and misuse - is at the heart of the challenge for food, fuel and fibre. It will determine our ability to realise many of the SDGs, from goal 2 to end hunger and goal 8 for those who depends on land and forests for their livelihoods, to goal 15 to protect, restore and promote ecosystems and forests.

If we know that land is key to a prosperous and equitable future, we also know that our current approach is not sustainable. More than 25% of the world's agricultural land is severely degraded. 70% of fresh water withdrawals - which have increased sevenfold since the 1990s - goes to agriculture. And each year, 7.6m ha of forests are permanently converted to other uses - the same amount of forest planted by Brazil that created 630,000 jobs in 2013. Critically, for developing countries, land use remains the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, making agriculture a key focus at the United Nations climate change meeting in Marrakesh next month.

With the right policies and institutions in place, we can fill the US$150-250 billion gap needed to restore and conserve agricultural land and forests. Targeted land use interventions could deliver around 30% of the reductions in greenhouse gases we need by 2030. Restoring at least 350 hectares of forests by 2030 could generate US$170 billion per year. Meanwhile, restoring just 12% of degraded agricultural land in developing countries could boost smallholder incomes by US$35-40bn per year, feeding 200 million people per year by 2020.

For land and forests - but also for cities, energy and transport - governments have just two-to-three years to make the right decisions, as interest rates are at record low, finance is available and technology is rapidly changing.

It is also a critical time for a business like ours. We know that our ability to operate in the long-term, to source the water, energy and commodities we need to make goods, depends on the immediate decisions we make.

Indeed, the type of infrastructure we choose to invest in today will determine our future for the next decades. We could be locked in to drastically different scenarios, impacting every aspect of our societies and economies, from how we source our energy, food and water, to how we value the environment and the people who depend on it. By investing in sustainable infrastructure we can choose a sustainable future.


Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever and Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulPolman and on LinkedIn.