August 17, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Green Path to COVID Recovery Looks Promising, but It Will Take a Global Village to Get There

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Elizabeth Losos

Countries around the world are pledging stimulus funding to support infrastructure construction as a way to aid economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the crisis, there is growing consensus across all sectors of society—intergovernmental organizations, international financial institutions, heads of state, finance ministers, mayors of large cities, business leaders, civil society organizations, and spiritual leaders—that now is the moment to “build back better.” This, however, requires building sustainable infrastructure by carefully planning, designing and constructing infrastructure projects that ensure economic, social, environmental, and institutional sustainability.

Yet the reality is that most countries appear to be following a business-as-usual path for infrastructure construction as they wrestle with rescue responses to health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. As these countries pivot to recovery responses, there is an urgency to embed sustainable infrastructure considerations in projects to ensure that they build back better.

One of the greatest barriers to sustainable infrastructure adoption during the post-COVID period, however, is that most agencies responsible for planning, financing, and constructing infrastructure lack the capacity to incorporate sustainable infrastructure development into the recovery process. This is not due to a lack of sustainable infrastructure policies, programs, tools, and other resources. A great many have been developed and deployed in recent years to build capacity in, for example, sustainable infrastructure planning, technical and engineering skills, project management, finance, and knowledge transfer.

So why aren’t these resources being mobilized for the post-COVID recovery? There are many obstacles hampering their large-scale embrace: sustainable infrastructure tools and programs are scattered and fragmented; users find it hard to identify and access programs that match their needs; it is hard to assess what has been done successfully (or poorly) in the past; and no universally agreed upon protocols, standards, or best practices exist.

Consequently, the many sustainable infrastructure policies, programs, and tools that have been developed are not being fully marshaled for the upcoming COVID recovery phase. If new funding is provided with few or no conditions, it is likely that the upcoming infrastructure boom could even undermine past or ongoing efforts for sustainable infrastructure capacity building.

An opportunity exists to quickly disseminate lessons learned, build institutional capacity, and accelerate the adoption of sustainable infrastructure by taking advantage of the recent proliferation of capacity development programs and tools. One key factor to achieving this transformation is the establishment of a learning community among the existing sustainable infrastructure providers and clients, including all parties engaged in infrastructure planning and development—government regulators, construction contractors, financiers, policy makers, and civil society groups. The community could share information, programs, standards, and tools globally; access data and models; learn from each other’s experiences; evaluate innovative concepts and programs; identify capacity needs; and connect infrastructure providers and clients.

Peer learning and co-creation can be an efficient means to build on existing programs, data, and experiences that can rapidly produce a post-COVID generation of sustainable infrastructure capacity development resources. To this end, a group of 19 organizations, led by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), is proposing the creation of a community of practice for sustainable infrastructure. The Sustainable Infrastructure Community of Learners (SI-CoL) Concept Note describes what this virtual community of practice might look like. To initiate SI-COL, we propose four inaugural activities:

  • First, the SI-CoL coalition will be established as an open global community of practice for individuals and institutions involved in infrastructure development. It will coordinate closely with the UNEP-led Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership.
  • Second, the coalition will oversee the development of SI-CoL Sharing Space. This open-access virtual platform will include information portals, tools, resources, forums, and meeting spaces related to sustainable infrastructure. The sharing space will be designed to attract both sustainable infrastructure capacity resource providers and clients as well as policy makers that influence sustainable infrastructure capacity development.
  • Third, the coalition will immediately launch a “lessons learned initiative” to share experiences, resources, tools, and planning experiences among institutions that have already or are in the process of creating sustainable infrastructure projects.
  • Finally, a SI-CoL Laboratory program will be created to pilot innovative, on-the-ground capacity-building programs that bring together active coalition member institutions to jointly test and cross-pollinate their respective approaches. For example, SI-CoL might organize capacity development activities such as sustainable infrastructure procurement training courses, standards harmonization, and development of certification programs to test, evaluate, and adapt different approaches to sustainable transportation development.

The urgency is enormous. Large-scale infrastructure projects—constructed in the name of post-pandemic economic recovery—will last for decades and will largely determine whether society is able to make significant inroads toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and reaching the Paris Climate Agreement targets. A virtual community of learners can rapidly crowdsource and provide the knowledge, tools, and lessons that are needed to respond specifically to the COVID-19 crisis and “build back better” infrastructure projects.

About the Author
Elizabeth Losos is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

NOTE: This piece first appeared as a blog post on the Green Growth Knowledge Platform. Read the original post here.

The Big Questions

To continue the conversation on this week's topic, here are a few questions for further consideration and study:

  1. Would a peer-to-peer learning community for sustainable infrastructure be more successful if it were initiated and funded by the international development community (top down) or through a grassroots effort of interested institutions (bottom up)? Does the urgency and timeliness of the pandemic recovery change the dynamics?
  2. In order to ensure a green recovery, to what degree should efforts focus on promoting positive green investments (e.g. support for renewable energy programs) versus reducing negative environmental consequences (e.g. banning coal plant investments or safeguarding environmental regulations)?
  3. Almost all countries that have committed to a green COVID-19 recovery are high income, such as the European Union nations and South Korea. Is it realistic to encourage low- and middle-income countries to follow a similar green recovery playbook?


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