SCIENCE FOCUS

Rapid pace of building, especially in developing world, puts wilderness at risk

Roads needed to service infrastructure in developing world bring woes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2015, 8:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 11:30am

Infrastructure is being built at the fastest rate in human history and could unleash a wave of road building that puts many of the world's remaining wildernesses at risk over the coming decades, scientists warn.

Everywhere you look the scale of what's happening is astonishing and quite frightening. As developing countries continue to grow their populations and economies, new dams, mines, oil wells and cities will be built to support the expansion.

But in a study just published, researchers said the localised impacts of these projects was "almost trivial" compared to the litany of woe caused by the roads that service them.

"When you're talking about things like hydroelectric projects, mining projects, logging projects, what these things are doing is creating an economic impetus for road building and it's really the roads that are the danger," said study author Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Australia.

"You're enormously increasing the physical accessibility of that habitat to poachers, to illegal loggers, to land speculators, to illegal colonists."By 2050 the length of the world's paved roads will have increased from 40 to 65 million kilometres. This does not account for the illegitimate roads ploughed through many of the world's most vulnerable regions. Laurance says for every kilometre of legitimate road in the Brazilian Amazon three are built illegally by racketeering resource companies.

"Everywhere you look the scale of what's happening is truly astonishing and quite frightening," he said. The value of the world's infrastructure, currently US$56 trillion, will more than double in the next 15 years. The G20 countries alone have US$60-70 trillion of construction planned between now and 2030. New roads will underwrite this boom.

"90 per cent of those roads will be in developing countries, which by the way sustain the planet's most biologically important ecosystems," says Laurance. "So we're talking a true tsunami of impacts in the world's most important environments."Laurance said the hunger for infrastructure investment in the developing world was attracting an increasingly cursory attitude towards environmental stewardship. Traditional Western donors are being supplanted by more aggressive financial institutions led by China such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, which place a smaller premium on the environment.

Laurance's study, published in the journal Current Biology, urges development financiers to account for the wider impacts of road building and infrastructure development.

He stresses that developing countries should not be impeded from pursuing development. The new routes will access isolated communities, remote resources and open new lands to agriculture. "It would be unfair for someone from an industrial nation to suggest that a level of investment in infrastructure is not needed," he said.

The Guardian