Businesses need to invest in green infrastructure

Businesses need to invest in green infrastructure

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City two years ago this week — notably just weeks after the largest climate march, which flooded the City’s streets with between 300,000 and 400,000 people.

These two events clearly illustrate the climate is changing, both in terms of atmospheric conditions and popular politics. They also underscore the fact that climate change cuts across traditional divisions — of labor and environmental concerns, business people, activists, government and more.

It's obvious something needs to be done. As the Business in a Climate-Constrained World Initiative states, companies must focus on aggressively and quickly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions — and thus mitigating climate change — as well as adapting to climate change dynamics already unleashed.

The mitigation side of the equation is as clear, as laid out by the We Mean Business Coalition, as well as recommendations from the E3G, IEA and many others who have been working on low carbon pathways forward.

Less often discussed is the climate change adaptation component. Yet, vulnerability in the face of climate change is a real issue. Building adaptive capacity is worthy of the best minds that we have, both to act on recommended approaches, such as those from the IPCC, and innovate new ones.

Most companies consider vulnerability, resilience and adaptation to climate change in terms of key buildings, roads and harbors (among other built, or gray, infrastructure). Few corporate leaders consider investing in resilience of all key infrastructure, including natural infrastructure.

And yet, a growing body of work shows how doing so offers returns that go above and beyond climate change adaptation. The World Resources Institute clearly lays out the many benefits of forested landscapes, particularly in relation to water protection. The Nature Conservancy offers additional examples (PDF) of how climate risks can be reduced through a suite of investments in natural infrastructure.

These investments also can promote jobs and economic vitality. For example, a study (PDF) of $166 million spent on green infrastructure projects in Los Angeles documented more than 2,000 jobs associated with this work, of which about 75 percent were local.

Green infrastructure also can benefit human health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that green spaces play an important role in reducing air and water pollution. Additonally, investing in green infrastructure can address challenges with food security, access to water and energy needs, as laid out in an IUCN report (PDF).

Without investments in natural infrastructure, all societies (and businesses) will lose buffering from significant weather events. We also will undercut recharge capacity of our underground aquifers and diminish natural carbon sequestration in forested landscapes. We likely will increase “ecosystem malfunction risk” as natural systems face growing stresses associated with climate change.

Some business leaders are taking note of green infrastructure opportunities. A jointly issued publication from Unilever, the Dow Chemical Company, SwissRe, Royal Dutch Shell and TNC makes the case for investing in green infrastructure and hybrid green/gray infrastructure to improve business resilience. If designed appropriately, these investments can be climate smart and business smart.

Companies can consider risks and opportunities in natural infrastructure around supply sourcing sites, manufacturing plants and essential transport hubs and corridors. Corporate leaders can ask green infrastructure-inspired questions, such as: Should we explore building an ever-higher sea wall or restoring a local coastal wetland? If both buffer from storm surges, which offer more co-benefits and resilience over time?

Corporate leaders getting serious about climate change must plan for operating in a climate-constrained world and becoming climate-smart by decreasing emissions and investing in efficiency and innovations — including green infrastructure.