April 23, 2024

Civil Engineering Entering ‘Renaissance’ with Shift to Sustainable Infrastructure

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

At a recent Duke University symposium, experts exchanged ideas about accelerating sustainable infrastructure development.

March 20 Panel: What is Sustainable Infrastructure? Building Consensus to Accelerate Financing

The symposium’s opening event at Duke in DC explored how global adoption of infrastructure sustainability standards could help mobilize public and private finance.

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Infrastructure projects built today will confront dramatically different conditions over their lifecycles, due to climate change’s impacts and shifting societal expectations. Future-proofing energy, transportation, telecommunication, water and other infrastructure systems will require a new sustainability and resilience mindset, infrastructure experts said during a panel discussion at Duke University on March 21.

“I’d like to think that we’re entering a renaissance period in civil engineering with the opportunities that are before us,” said Todd Bridges, professor of practice in resilient and sustainable systems at the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering.

The panel was part of a three-day, two-city symposium focused on accelerating development of sustainable infrastructure. Moderator Jerome Lynch, Vinik Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, teed up the March 21 conversation by describing a paradox at the heart of the growing push for climate-resilient, sustainable infrastructure.

Panelists repeatedly noted the importance of innovative approaches to building climate-resilient infrastructure that minimize negative social and environmental consequences, including the loss of benefits that nature provides.

Motoko Aizawa, Jerome Lynch, and Anita van Breda
The March 21 panel discussion featured representatives from the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, multilateral organizations and academia. From left: Motoko Aizawa, Jerome Lynch, and Anita van Breda.

“We want to be resilient, so we want to ensure that our infrastructure continues to serve society as we intend,” Lynch noted. “But at the same time, we need to be sustainable and more deliberate about controlling carbon emissions associated with our infrastructure projects.”

Many people think of infrastructure as single-purpose projects built with concrete, asphalt and steel — like roads, bridges or dams. As the panelists explained, sustainable infrastructure is multidimensional. These projects balance environmental, economic, societal and governance considerations — from land use to design and construction to operation to decommissioning.

“Communities are demanding a lot from their infrastructure,” said Roni Deitz, global director of climate adaptation at Arcadis. “Part of sustainable design is really pushing what we ask of infrastructure and ensuring that every dollar we invest, we’re maximizing the use that comes from it.”

Nature-based solutions — actions to protect, manage or restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges — are gaining attention as a way to meet infrastructure needs, noted Rowan Palmer, a program management officer with the United Nations Environment Programme. For example, a restored wetland can work in concert with built infrastructure to lessen flooding impacts, expand habitat for native species and provide other environmental and societal benefits.

As Bridges put it, sustainable infrastructure largely revolves around “not engineering on nature, but engineering with it.”

March 22 Workshop: Infrastructure Sustainability Learning Initiative

The symposium’s closing event brought together three dozen Duke faculty and research staff and invited experts to develop networks for the Infrastructure Sustainability Learning (ISLe) Initiative.

The ISLe Initiative builds local capacity in sustainable infrastructure by virtually bringing together practitioners and experts to share information and problem-solve using a case-based learning approach. New ISLe networks focus on themes like disaster resilience and recovery, sustainable transportation, nature-positive infrastructure solutions and climate and sustainability engineering curricula.

Support for the ISLe Initiative is provided by the Schmidt Initiative for Long Covid.

More about the ISLe Initative

Even with nature-based solutions, each infrastructure project comes with tradeoffs between various benefits and consequences for people and nature. Quantifying these to inform decisions can be a complex process.

Sustainably rebuilding after a disaster poses additional challenges. Anita van Breda, senior director of environment and disaster management at World Wildlife Fund-US, often sees long-term decisions being made quickly in the rush to rebuild after a disaster — and not always with community support.

“One of the barriers — and also one of the opportunities — for us in our work is really being deliberate and thoughtful about community engagement,” van Breda said. “Communities need to be organized so that when decisions are made, they’re better able to be at the table and influence the decisions, the planning and the funding.”

Funding is another major barrier for sustainable infrastructure, despite a recent uptick in infrastructure investments. While the United States is making its largest investment in domestic infrastructure in generations, and the U.S. and its G-7 partners have pledged $600 billion in public and private investments for emerging markets and developing countries, one speaker cited the need for $15 trillion in infrastructure investment globally by 2040, and another pegged the global need at $100 trillion by the century’s end.

Institutional investors — for example, pension and insurance funds that have ESG mandates — have more than enough assets to fill this gap. However, as researcher Motoko Aizawa noted, the challenge is bringing that money off the sidelines.

Particpants in the March 22 workshop seated at table in discussion
Participants in the March 22 workshop broke into small groups to develop peer-learning networks for building local capacity in sustainable infrastructure.

“They don't necessarily have in-house expertise to invest in infrastructure, especially in emerging markets, which scares investors quite a lot,” Aizawa said. “So that money is sitting there and everybody's trying to figure out how to crack that nut open.”

The March symposium also included a panel discussion at Duke in DC on mobilizing public and private finance and a full-day workshop to advance best practices in sustainable infrastructure. (See sidebars.)

The symposium was organized by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and Pratt School of Engineering in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure and World Wildlife Fund-US.

This was the second installment in the Duke Climate Collaboration Symposia series, which is helping to identify opportunities for Duke University to make the most of its interdisciplinary expertise and convening power for meaningful impact on climate challenges. The series is funded by a gift from The Duke Endowment in support of the Duke Climate Commitment, which unites the university’s education, research, operations and public service missions to address the climate crisis.