Here’s what’s missing from the picture.
Remember when President Trump and team talked regularly about “Infrastructure Week?” Alas, it never came to pass. Instead, the notion became a running gag. Too bad. It was one of Trump’s better ideas.
Fast forward to today, and it looks like infrastructure’s moment has finally arrived. Spurred by President Biden’s big proposal, Democrats and Republicans have even engaged in a somewhat substantive debate about what constitutes proper infrastructure. Further, a big infrastructure bill will likely pass soon. This is real progress.
But one thing is mostly missing from the conversation.
As our readers know, green infrastructure (aka “natural capital”) presents a hugely attractive win-win-win-win investment opportunity. We’ve been waiting a long time for this moment. But we need to do much more right now to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Let’s rev up assertive and collaborative campaigning for green infrastructure. Private sector players, NGOs, philanthropists, and scientists should speak out. This is the very best opportunity we’ve had in a very long time to champion natural capital.
There is reason for some optimism. The concept of green infrastructure is now well understood. And a number of new and exciting private sector efforts are underway to pursue business opportunities connected to natural capital.
But infrastructure investing is mostly the job of the government. Unless we push public officials very hard now, a green infrastructure boom is not likely.
Disclosure: I’m an enthusiast about investing in nature. It was a main focus for me over the 11 years I served as CEO of the Nature Conservancy. I wrote a book on the topic. And today I advise and invest in a number of companies in the nature-based solutions business.
Green Infrastructure 101
Most of us love nature for nature’s sake. We also respect other species and future generations. We don’t need any additional rationale to care for nature. We know it’s the right thing to do, period.
But let’s broaden our thinking for a moment.
We can also think of nature as an asset base that we should invest in and protect. Why? Because nature provides us critical services such as:
- clean air to breathe
- healthy water to drink
- good soil in which to grow our food
- coastal ecosystems that protect us from sea level rise and storms
- habitat for biodiversity
- beautiful outdoor areas for recreation
- and — if we don’t blow it — a stable climate in which to live.
We also know that this natural capital base is severely degraded. Nature urgently needs our help right now or we risk losing these key services forever.
This investment rationale for nature is useful because it helps mobilize additional resources, including people, dollars, political clout, and enthusiasm to the cause. We can use this extra help.
But when governments plan big infrastructure programs, they still mostly think about “grey” (i.e., man-made) assets, such as bridges and seawalls.
It’s our job to get green alternatives on the table, like greening rooftops, restoring forests, and conserving ecosystems that strengthen watersheds or provide us protection from storms.
For the skeptics among us: why is green infrastructure win-win-win-win?
I can think of no better example than New York City’s famous investment in nature in the late 1990s.
By 1989, a combination of increased pollution and stricter EPA rules left NYC facing the prospect of building new facilities to clean its drinking water . . . to the tune of $8 billion — a cost that would ultimately be borne by local residents and business. But thanks to some courageous and bold thinking by city officials, regulators, farmers, and landowners, a much better alternative was funded. Rather than paying to clean up dirty water once it made its way into the city, these leaders chose to protect the upstream watershed from where the water came. The price tag was still in the billions, but far below the figure 8 that was originally before them.
This was truly a win-win-win-win. At no extra charge, the city secured:
- beautiful open spaces
- good jobs
- habitat for wildlife
- good farming conditions
- beautiful areas for outdoor recreation
- and even some carbon sequestration (although climate wasn’t intentionally part of the game plan at the time).
So instead of building a huge piece of grey infrastructure to clean up a human-made mess, the city instead invested in nature to keep clean and delicious water clean and delicious and attained all these additional benefits. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You can read more about the details here. It truly is an amazing story. And it’s a model for future investment.
Are there other great examples of green infrastructure?
Yes, plenty! How about:
- Insurance for coral reefs to provide protection from storms
- Water sensitive urban design to manage excess water
- Regenerative agriculture to reduce nutrient runoff, store water, and drawdown carbon
- Parks adjacent to hospitals to materially improve patient recoveries
- Protected areas to serve biodiversity goals
- Bees for pollination to boost agriculture
- Trees in cities to absorb pollution to improve human health outcomes
Just to name a few.
Sounds like a no-brainer. What’s holding us back?
Most government officials don’t usually do what our heroes in NYC did. It’s understandable. Infrastructure engineers aren’t paid to take big chances. They tend to play it safe and repeat what they know works. But we can build an appreciation for green infrastructure.
- We should provide more concrete (excuse the pun) examples of how investing in nature pays off. What really works, what does not, what it costs, and when grey and green initiatives should be combined. We need more pilot initiatives. And the pilots should be bigger and have a more clearly measured ROI. These projects will provide more data, more science and, in turn, generate more confidence. Most of the examples I noted above are ones I know firsthand from my days at TNC. At the time, I was really excited about all of the momentum that was building. I thought things would keep accelerating — much more than they have in fact. Let’s rev up the tempo.
- I’d like to see more private sector-led initiatives. Here I’m pretty optimistic. There is so much now underway that the outlook seems very bright to me. We can build on some past forays like Swiss Re’s support for coral reef insurance, Walmart’s for smart row crop farming, Tencent’s for nature-based urban water management, architectural firm NBBJ’s for nature-adjacent hospitals, and so on. Companies can move fast, raise capital, harness technology, and take pilots to a large scale. They can further maximize their chances for success by collaborating with NGOs and others with experience in nature-based solutions and by committing to radical transparency.
Let’s look at a great pending example — regenerative agriculture.
Just how much potential does green infrastructure hold? Consider regenerative agriculture. It offers the opportunity to not only remove carbon from the atmosphere, but also to reduce nutrient runoff, capture moisture in the water, and allow farmers to earn more money.
So who’s involved in regenerative agriculture? A model team.
- Newer specialized NGOs like the Soil Health Institute as well as the big orgs have been focused on this for some time.
- New companies like Indigo Ag and Nori together with big food company collaborations are trying to accelerate progress.
- TNC is even investing in soil health startup companies. This seems smart to me because there are some things that for-profit companies — especially start-ups — can do faster and more nimbly.
- Skeptics play an important role too — we want transparency, independent reviews, and careful scrutiny to make sure these initiatives really work.
- And, in very welcome news, President Biden’s team is now on it.
This is the perfect formula: private sector initiative (both big companies and startups), collaboration with the environmental community, transparency, engagement by critics, and the federal government developing programs to go to scale. Just like what happened in the early days of solar energy, for example.
To meet Biden’s new climate goal, farms (and forests too) must sequester a lot more carbon. For a long time, we’ve paid farmers not to do things. Why not instead pay them to do something that will be win-win-win-win? Thanks to the diverse team now focused on this opportunity, the odds of success go way up.
Let’s do the same in connection with the other big green infrastructure opportunities.
Need more incentive?
Investments in green infrastructure are not only cost-effective ways of achieving traditional infrastructure outcomes, they can also:
- bolster biodiversity
- remove carbon from the atmosphere
- reduce risk from climate change
- sustain beautiful outdoor areas
- support indigenous communities
- address environmental justice opportunities
- create good jobs
I hope some good version of Biden’s infrastructure bill ends up passing. It will move us forward in rethinking and addressing what constitutes the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities that underpin our society.
I also hope the environmental community will push harder to bring nature to the table. It’s one of our greatest assets and opportunities. It would be a shame to miss it.