We can’t build our way out of the environmental crisis

(The Guardian, 1 Sep 2021) New infrastructure projects are all the rage, post-pandemic. But who benefits from a rising tide of concrete?

Dig for victory: this, repurposed from the second world war, could be the slogan of our times. All over the world, governments are using the pandemic and the environmental crisis to justify a new splurge of infrastructure spending. In the US, Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure framework “will make our economy more sustainable, resilient, and just”. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s build back betterprogramme will “unite and level up 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.

Sure, we need some new infrastructure. If people are to drive less, we need new public transport links and safe cycling routes. We need better water treatment plants and recycling centres, new wind and solar plants, and the power lines required to connect them to the grid. But we can no more build our way out of the environmental crisis than we can consume our way out of it. Why? Because new building is subject to the eight golden rules of infrastructure procurement.

Rule 1 is that the primary purpose of new infrastructure is to enrich the people who commission or build it. Even when a public authority plans a new scheme for sensible reasons, first it must pass through a filter: will this make money for existing businesses? This is how, for example, plans to build a new hydrogen infrastructure in the UK appear to have been hijacked. In August, the head of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Chris Jackson, resigned in protest at the government’s plans to promote hydrogen made from fossil methane, rather than producing it only from renewable electricity. He explained that the government’s strategy locks the nation into fossil fuel use. It seems to have the gas industry’s fingerprints all over it.

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The Guardian, 1 Sep 2021: We can’t build our way out of the environmental crisis