Slamming the brakes on large-scale infrastructure projects

The Shard, London

The Shard, London

A lack of infrastructure can often be a barrier to progress in many parts of the world. But a leading professor has after decades of research concluded that many of the world's biggest projects aren't fit for purpose and could ultimately do more harm than good. CATHERINE HARTE reports

It’s vital to understand the realities because we’re living in the most explosive era of infrastructure expansion in human history

At least half of the large-scale infrastructure projects being proposed today are a bad idea, argues a leading scientist who has spent nearly forty years studying building around the world.

“And when I say 'bad', I don’t just mean bad for the environment,” says Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Australia. “I mean bad for economies, bad for societies, and bad for project investors.”

Professor Laurance has summarised decades of research on the costs and benefits of big infrastructure projects - such as major highways, railroads, hydropower dams and industrial mines - in an article in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Just plain foolish

“It’s vital to understand the realities because we’re living in the most explosive era of infrastructure expansion in human history,” said Laurance.

“Most new infrastructure projects are occurring in developing nations, which direly need smart development and investment. But many proposed projects are just plain foolish.

“For starters, widespread corruption completely distorts things. Projects that should never proceed get approved because government decision-makers are being paid off by project proponents.

“And the economic benefits of big projects are often grossly unfair—a few power brokers and their cronies are becoming fabulously wealthy, while most people see little benefit or even fall behind. That’s not smart development."

He added: “In environmental terms, we’re seeing new projects tear into the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet.

Hidden risks

"For example, in parts of the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, our research team is seeing Chinese-backed roads, dams, and mines happening in places that no rational investor should be touching.

“Investors assume they understand the risks and rewards of big projects. But far too often there are shoals of hidden risks, and projects that sound highly promising can turn into shipwrecks.

He concluded: “Just look around. You see big projects failing all the time. Nations are incurring big debts, investors are losing money, the environmental damage is appalling, and most of all, the average person isn’t getting ahead.

“The vital thing is to slow down the big projects. Delay them so there’s time for vital information to be disclosed and the public to debate the merits of each project.

"When the public understands what’s happening—what’s really happening—you’ll see a lot of bad projects disappear.”

This Author

Catherine Harte is a contributing editor to The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from James Cook University, Australia. 

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