Mitigating flooding and erosion, sequestering carbon, purifying water and providing a habitat for aquatic species — natural infrastructure projects can add resilience to an economic recovery from COVID-19. They can also create needed jobs.
Along with its storms and droughts, global warming continues to cause the seas to rise at a rate of one-eighth of an inch per year. Natural infrastructure such as wetlands, reefs, mangroves, oyster reefs and sand dunes can help communities avoid costs of erosion, flooding and storms that are coming with climate change.
Compared with gray infrastructure solutions, natural infrastructure can also bring cost-savings. The CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has outlined direct financial benefits from leveraging natural processes, including capital cost savings, operation and maintenance savings and greater returns on investment than gray infrastructure alternatives.
Indirect effects such as improved operational safety, social license to operate and enhanced public health and recreational opportunities also contribute to a stronger business and improved reputation, the WBCSD notes.
According to the Canadian non-profit Municipal Natural Assets Initiative, the town of Riverview, New Brunswick, alone could save $2.3 million in stormwater management by protecting four wetlands.
And what if a natural infrastructure solution does cost more to implement at the outset? A response from Joyce Coffee and Camilla Gardner may help: “By…focusing more on what is to be gained rather than how much it might cost, our investment decisions can be more informed and equipped to center equity, real climate risk, and the well-being of all,” they wrote for TriplePundit in November.
Some countries and localities are already leveraging natural infrastructure solutions to coastal erosion, sea-level rise and flooding:
This time last year, New Zealand budgeted $1.1 billion to create 11,000 environmental jobs — part of which would focus on restoring wetlands and stabilizing river banks.
“These initiatives show how environment-related actions can make a meaningful contribution to the post-COVID-19 economic recovery,” Environment Minister David Parker said.
In Apalachicola Bay, Florida, the Apalachee Regional Planning Council and WSP have been establishing natural infrastructure to protect a highway that acts as a hurricane evacuation route.
WSP writes that millions of dollars have been spent over the years in an attempt to protect the route using gray infrastructure, without success.
The natural solution involves developing an intertidal marsh through oyster reefs. According to WSP, the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay, the largest in the country, has struggled in recent decades. New oyster reefs will not only weaken incoming waves and diminish roadway erosion, but may also benefit the coastal economy.
When Hurricane Harvey came barreling through Texas in 2017, costing an estimated $125 billion in damages, a reclaimed urban wetland in the community of Clear Lake kept floodwaters away from homes.
The 200-acre wetland and green space, Exploration Green, was formerly an abandoned golf course. Now, it can hold up to 500 million gallons of stormwater while providing a home to over 1,000 native species and recreation to community members.
President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) — a take on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s — allocates $10 billion to employ thousands in creating infrastructure that defends the nation from the threats of climate change. A January executive order stipulates that the corps should “aim to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
In its decade-long run, the Civilian Conservation Corps built more than 300,000 dams, almost 50,000 bridges and 3,500 fire towers, Mary Ellen Sprenkel, president and CEO of the Corps Network, said in a testimony before the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee earlier this year.
Specifics of the new CCC haven’t yet been published, but the program could push the nation to embrace natural infrastructure solutions more widely, and thus reap broad benefits.
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