TNRC Blog - Transparency, open data, and participation: tools for environmentally responsible infrastructure

Transparency, open data, and participation: Tools for environmentally responsible infrastructure

Infrastructure at a cross-roads

Infrastructure underpins almost every facet of society. It is key to economic growth and social development and – when well-planned and managed – can have a profound and positive impact on global environmental and climate goals. It is, however, easy to take infrastructure for granted – many of us likely give little thought to the roads, ports and electrical systems that connect communities, service global trade, and power cities. Yet much of the world lacks this core infrastructure; investment projections bear this out. Roughly $90 trillion will be invested in new infrastructure by 2030 and 75 percent of the infrastructure that will be in place in 2050 does not exist today. Most of this infrastructure will be developed in the global south.

We are, therefore, at cross-roads…How can we plan for infrastructure that delivers for people, planet and prosperity? History suggests that this is easier said than done. Infrastructure planning is costly, time-consuming, and complex; it involves numerous stakeholders with competing agendas and interests. The planet is scarred with ill-conceived and poorly executed projects, and the alternative path presents a more complicated and troubling set of outcomes.

Systemic weaknesses in the way infrastructure is often planned, procured, and implemented open up opportunities for corruption and collusion with massive environmental costs. Examples include rewarding companies that have ignored environmental safeguards in past projects, suppressing or obscuring environmental impact assessment findings, or approving unnecessary and destructive projects for personal or political gain. We need actionable solutions and practical tools so that all stakeholders can make sense of how infrastructure projects affect nature. The challenge is urgent – choices we make today will have implications for decades to come.

Against this backdrop, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – through the Targeting Natural Resources Corruption (TNRC) Project – supported the development of two important tools for preventing, identifying, and addressing corruption in infrastructure and its impact on the environment.

Catching conservation “red flags”

Together with the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP), WWF identified “red flags for conservation” – essentially indicators or markers that help stakeholders identify errors or gaps in public infrastructure planning, procurement, or implementation that can potentially pose a risk to nature. This work supports and enhances OCP’s innovative Open Contracting for Infrastructure (OC4I) agenda, an effort to address the need for better and more timely data across the infrastructure lifecycle.

For example, projects without spatial planning data are a red flag for conservation. Poor quality or missing georeferenced information means that the public, conservation experts, and potential infrastructure suppliers cannot identify potential conservation impacts of the infrastructure, or tell if rules restrict or prohibit infrastructure in that location.

The 22 indicators like this one, available with an accompanying guidance document, list out important warnings to watch for, from missing environmental impact assessments to signs that original design commitments may have been revised at later stages. Comprehensive and accessible open data and open data tools like these are a necessary first step for enabling optimal outcomes in infrastructure development. Armed with timely information, motivated, well-informed stakeholders who can access, use and understand data can improve policies, processes and performance and hold those responsible to account for any discrepancies.

Taking action

Of course, the ideal scenario is a process with sufficient civil society participation from the beginning so that no red flags are later raised in the data. Barring that, if flags are raised, then someone has to take action.

To that end, WWF Adria and the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) partnered for an in-depth legal analysis on whether infrastructure projects in several protected areas in Serbia had complied with required regulations. As part of a larger program to build organizations’ capacity to participate in spatial planning around such projects, they documented their analysis in a detailed and useful manual.

Their study identified several instances of omitted steps, reliance on regulations that were outdated or inappropriate but easier or less restrictive, and general failures to follow the prescribed process. Examples included the construction of ski resorts, observation decks, and hydroelectric reservoirs all in direct contradiction of binding protected area conservation plans and national law.

Of course, all of these errors could have been innocent mistakes, and their study found no clear evidence of bribes or other direct forms of corruption. As WWF Adria and RERI noted, however, it is certainly suspicious when consultations are intentionally rushed and complaints to point out errors are aggressively ignored. A proposed Ferris wheel schematic was drawn to 49.8 meters, with obvious mistakes in the depiction. Was that an intentional effort to make sure the project’s foundation excavation, concrete pouring, and steel-heavy construction could fall under the rules for a <50 meters structure like “a miniature kiosk, street stall or some other similar movable furniture”?

Bringing these tools to bear

Done better, infrastructure procurement can be one of the most important drivers to safeguard our global effort to make the world greener and cleaner. Done poorly, or left unchanged, it risks being a brake on climate and environmental action.

Improving the way that infrastructure procurement processes consult with stakeholders and consider biodiversity is of dire importance. Resources like these can provide a first step for stakeholders to get involved, understand where laws have been broken or where things are going wrong, and, by addressing these problems, kickstart a positive accountability loop for global climate, development, and environmental goals.

© Pedro Menezes / Unsplash


Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus