The Profitability of Green Infrastructure

The only constant is change. Seasons change, ecosystems change, the climate changes and people change.

Image credits: Albert Herring / University of Exeter

Whether or not we realize we are changing is another story. If change is inevitable in life, then so are the environmental changes around us.

An indication of our potential to change is the health of the global ecosystem. In our environment, we constantly affect change through our lifestyle choices and livelihoods. The proof is in the pudding when we look at the rates of species extinction, resource depletion, and global pollution.

How we influence our ecosystems and how we are influenced by them makes all other lifestyle changes possible. We change our lifestyles by choosing where we live, where we work, how we travel, what products and services we use, and how we access basic resources such as food, electricity, and water.

Our Environmental Health and Sustainability Need Improvement

If we look at ecosystem health and measure how our lifestyles are affecting our ecosystems, we humans aren’t doing well. According to the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Development Report, we aren’t living sustainably.

Over 60% of our ecosystem’s services are being degraded or used unsustainably. These services include:

  • Fisheries
  • Water supply
  • Waste treatment and detoxification
  • Water purification
  • Natural hazard protection
  • Regulation of air quality,
  • Regulation of regional and local climates
  • Regulation of erosion

The UN report also shows us the future our lifestyle choices yields a species extinction rate 10 times higher than it was in 2005.

The fabric that ties our lifestyle choices together is our shared infrastructure – our homes, our workplaces, our roads and our utilities. Beyond mortgages, shared infrastructure extends to multi-billion-dollar road projects, water treatment facilities and electricity generation sites.

Although we share in the benefits, we don’t directly invest in the costs of these shared infrastructures. We invest by participating in decisions about what type of shared infrastructure works best where we live. Depending on our local policies, we share in the cost of maintaining this infrastructure through the taxes we pay.

Most shared infrastructure decisions result in long-term consequences of at least 20 years’ duration because of the scale and size of the investment. But we must interact with the consequences of these long-term decisions every day.

Infrastructure Changes Must Become More Meaningful

Even though our shared infrastructure might last at least 20 years, that doesn’t mean making infrastructure changes must be painstakingly slow. It does mean, however, that the few windows of opportunities to make a change must count.

These opportunities for change include elections, changes in private and public sector administration, natural and technical disasters, public opposition, market failure, resource depletion and space limitations. These opportunities also give us time to evaluate why failures and challenges in shared infrastructure occur. Through green infrastructure, we have the chance to restore and sustain ecosystem services.

Green Infrastructure Ultimately Leads to More Profitability

Willemstad is the capital city of Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea. Image credits: Sony Ilce-7r

The United Nations Environment Programme defines a “green” economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” Similarly, the European Commission defines green infrastructure as a “strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services such as water purification, air quality, space for recreation and climate mitigation and adaptation.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focuses primarily on water management through green infrastructures, such as:

  • Downspout disconnection
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Planter boxes
  • Bioswales
  • Permeable pavements
  • Green streets and alleys
  • Green parking
  • Green roofs
  • Urban tree canopy
  • Land conservation

Green infrastructure can make shared infrastructure, such as homes, workplaces and commercial spaces, more efficient.

Green infrastructure also stretches our dollars the furthest because it addresses multiple financial, environmental and social issues, known as a “triple bottom line.” After all, if one dollar invested can solve three problems rather than one, aren’t the results more profitable by default? Each aspect of a triple bottom line – profit, people and planet – can be measured by a dollar value through social and ecological economics.

If you think your dollar shouldn’t be spent on more than one issue at a time, that is silo thinking and is more costly in reality. Everything is connected. If you think that you can afford to deal with only one issue at time, you still lose another dollar because another issue isn’t being addressed.

How the Caribbean Uses Green Infrastructure for Environmental and Economic Improvements

Green infrastructure can ultimately be more beneficial for everyone. For example, if we choose to repair roads using materials that are more impervious to weather than we have used in the past, we will have to pay for the environmental consequences of those increased impervious surfaces later on. Increasing the proportion of impervious surfaces as compared to creating green spaces leads to societal and ecosystem health issues.

Increased amounts of storm water from using impervious materials on roads results in flooding, poorer water quality or an increased cost in water management. Ironically, this increased cost could lead to the erosion of those same impervious-surface roads and therefore decrease the value of other capital investments.

Studies have shown that water ecosystem health deteriorates when more than 10% of a watershed is paved with weather-impervious materials. In the Caribbean, coral reef ecosystems are valued at $2 billion, but 75% of Caribbean coral reef ecosystems face threats, including those related to water quality.

Three countries in the Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Barbados) also rank in the top 20 nations with the highest road density. This results in comparatively high ratios of impervious surface areas. On one hand, we can invest strictly in road repairs and ignore the impervious surface cost of deteriorating ecosystems, or we can invest in solving multiple problems through green infrastructure.

In the Caribbean, local governments are constantly involved in road repairs and upgrades to infrastructure (including water pipelines). Both international and local businesses are always seeking ways to expand the $25 billion Caribbean tourism industry, which is responsible for at least 50% of the region’s income.

The use of green infrastructure solutions to address the challenge that impervious surfaces create for coastal ecosystems is also an opportunity to create a green tourism experience. More sustainable tourism benefits Caribbean residents.

Green infrastructure solutions address multiple issues simultaneously and result in multiple benefits, which can be factored into any bottom line:

  • Increased property values
  • Decreased ecological and carbon footprints
  • Integration of mixed-use green spaces (energy generation, water catchment and pollution reduction)
  • Maximized use of unused urban spaces

For more than one reason including failing water infrastructure, increasing floods and drought, limited budgets and climate change, investment in green infrastructure continues to increase to approximately $25 billion in 2015 worldwide. If this doesn’t prove to you that green infrastructure gives us the best value for our dollars – what will?

About the Author

Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science at FAMU.

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