To halt and reverse biodiversity decline we need a fresh new partnership between nature conservation and infrastructure.

A thriving alliance between infrastructure engineers and those restoring nature could create flourishing nature recovery networks linked to infrastructure development.

The delivery of new infrastructure projects and associated construction typically results in significant man-made impacts on nature and major carbon emissions, but they also bring some of the greatest opportunities for the creation of carbon sinks and biodiversity recovery, if properly planned.

Indeed, integrating natural capital and biodiversity with infrastructure is an approach that is already helping major landowners, infrastructure owners and operators to make better decisions about their infrastructure investments and management, while realising their land stewardship impact.

But new partnerships and alliances take time and energy to make them work, so why bother?

Individuals and organisations around the world are grappling with two global challenges: the growing threat of catastrophic climate breakdown and a sixth mass extinction event. The 2020 WWF Global Living Planet Index shows an average 68% fall in populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. Further, in the long run, economic damages from Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, based on 2008 figures, could amount to US$1.7 trillion per year. Those from biodiversity loss are estimated to range between US$2-4.5 trillion per year. With the recent publication of the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, there is a growing consensus that these issues are inextricably linked and need to be tackled together urgently.

The UK is leading the world in the design and implementation of cutting-edge policy and research addressing these twin crises. These policy and governance innovations include the forthcoming Environment Bill with its mandated delivery of a net gain in biodiversity; the establishment of a Natural Capital Committee to guide and challenge government decision-making; the far-reaching goals set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state, and the launch of the new Environmental Land Management scheme, to the legal requirement for the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Further, the global pandemic’s impact on the country calls for an urgent need for economic recovery and investment that sets a global example for how other countries can tackle recovery in a way that sustains communities and allows nature to flourish – the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People is a good example of pathfinding here.

What needs addressing urgently is the mindset that still sees infrastructure development and a flourishing natural system as separate. This is where the works needs to be done – environmental data and digital integration of hard infrastructure and natural systems is the key to making it happen.

The economic and financial value of infrastructure and urban development is well understood, but the value of natural capital to infrastructure has been difficult to quantify, both in economic benefits and return on investment, especially for investors, governments, and major landowners.

But that is changing as the global race to achieving net zero is driving understanding of how integrating natural systems into infrastructure developments and incorporating carbon sinks into the design and engineering of grey infrastructure can deliver multiple economic and financial benefits.

This thinking is not just addressing carbon budgeting, it can achieve an overall reduction in required grey infrastructure carbon footprint. Nature-based solutions (NBS) actually help replace some of the components of carbon-intensive elements of grey infrastructure, reducing its overall carbon footprint and promoting CO2 absorption (carbon sink) and resilience.

NBS have the potential to tackle both climate mitigation and adaptation challenges, but there is a need to invest in data capture and spatial analysis to understand that optimal mix at the right landscape scale. This will help to deliver clever solutions, creating multiple additional benefits for people and nature. Infrastructure-linked natural capital assets and biomes under active management have vast potential for carbon sequestration, air and water quality improvements, flood prevention and an array of societal co-benefits that enhance health, well-being and education.

The challenge with NBS is formulating an engineering design that encompasses this understanding of biological processes and the need for ecological networks that both map onto and take advantage of the infrastructure footprint. For example, combining mangrove/seagrass/coral complexes with concrete seawalls where there is a need for full coastal protection against sea-level rise and more intense storms.

AECOM’s pioneering Natural Capital Laboratory in Scotland is a good demonstration of how the latest environmental data capture and interpretation can be deployed to create accessible natural capital accounts and engage stakeholders in a vision for realistic nature-based solutions. Moreover, this understanding can help the engineering community begin to rely on natural assets when assessing the performance of their overall scheme designs.

For new infrastructure developments, the first principle is to avoid intact, functioning ecosystems, which means developments will need to go around, over or under critical ecosystems to avoid unnecessary fragmentation. Large infrastructure networks and nodes, however, can provide compelling opportunities for carefully aligned biodiversity enhancements.

Infrastructure, particularly linear transport, power and water vectors make natural networks for ecological enhancements to situate around – supporting the concept of nature recovery networks. This facilitates creation of viable breeding populations for recovering species and brings the added benefit that the value of nature is greatly enhanced to society when it is close to people and easily accessed for its restorative and wellbeing impacts. We’ve seen this around the world during the recent lockdown.

A new relationship between nature conservation and engineering design will enable practitioners to test and model the design and, most importantly, provide feedback on what is practically feasible.  In turn this helps project developers to prepare bankable sustainable infrastructure projects that build climate mitigation, and consider NBS as a substitute, compliment, or safeguard to conventional infrastructure design.

There needs to be a fundamental shift towards understanding the value of natural capital and integration of biodiversity networks for land use and infrastructure development, and a need for the engineering world to adopt biodiversity-positive principles and standards. Natural assets should become an integrated and flourishing component of infrastructure and urban development and play a prominent role in meeting net zero targets.

Robert Spencer

Robert is Director of Sustainable Development at AECOM.

This piece was drafted for the High Speed Rail Group.