The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked fiscal havoc across the globe. Now, governments all around the world are turning their attention to how best to revive their economies once the immediate danger has passed. This means that fiscal stimulus spending proposals will likely be huge and enjoy broad bipartisan support.
This is good news for supporters of green (i.e., nature-based) infrastructure. In many cases, green infrastructure investments will provide better investment opportunities than grey (i.e., human-made) ones.
But is the environmental community ready to pursue fully such important funding opportunities? I don’t think so.
True, many NGOs, academics, and others are doing great work on this front. But the champions of traditional human-made infrastructure have a big advantage. Because grey infrastructure has been the go-to for so long, people pushing it have much more information at hand about what works, what doesn’t work, how much things cost, timelines, actual case studies, and hard evidence. This makes it easier for them to convince governments looking for a quick solution to invest in those methods.
If environmentalists want to close this gap, they need to do it fast. Here, I’ll lay out a framework for building a compelling case.
Let’s use mangrove restoration as an example. Investing in mangrove restoration will provide protection from sea level rise and extreme weather. The top-line arguments here are well known, but-high level arguments are insufficient now. Governments face enormous challenges and are very resource constrained, which means they’ll want to identify the very best and most well-prepared investment opportunities. Therefore, we should expect skepticism of our innovative—but, to some large degree, unproven—mangrove restoration proposal.
Improving the case for this proposal would require a diverse team of environmentalists, scientists, engineers, financiers, and funders putting together the most informed and convincing proposal possible.
Some suggestions for what this team needs to do:
- We don’t need more high-level inspirational pitches. We’ve got that covered. We do need a complete analysis of everything we know—and, importantly, what we don’t know—in our proposal.
- We also need to be more precise about what intact and healthy mangroves can and can’t do. Mostly emphasizing the good news is probably a good idea. But it’s also important to be clear about the circumstances in which mangroves likely won’t provide the protection we need. Our proposal will be better with 100 percent candor and transparency. The proposal looks better, not worse, if we're honest about what doesn't work.
- Even if a standing robust mangrove today provides a certain amount of protection, we can’t assume a restored one will do the same. How long will the actual restoration work take? After the work is done, how long will the mangrove ecosystem need to grow to achieve full strength? What kind of protection will it provide during the interim? Will it need to be reinforced with some grey infrastructure, as well? The team needs to be able to answer these questions.
- And these, too: How detailed can our investment case be? Can we show, precisely, quarter by quarter, year by year, the outflow in dollars to pay for the project; milestones that will allow for monitoring both the work and natural growth we expect; and measures of risk reduction we would expect to achieve? Projections like this allow decisionmakers to be better informed up front and better able to see how things will go over time if the project is launched. It’s important to remember that nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. Some initiatives outperform the plan, and others fall short. By paying close attention to both what works well and what doesn’t, we can learn, adjust, and improve outcomes.
Some other questions to consider:
- How does our mangrove proposal compare to the grey infrastructure alternative? Would it strengthen our proposal to include a certain amount of grey infrastructure? How would a traditional engineering analysis rate our proposal?
- Scientists in academia have done tremendous work in recent years studying natural capital. What peer-reviewed work would support or challenge our specific proposal? And how can academia support us going forward in monitoring and fine-tuning our investment over time?
- Can we develop cash-flow projections that demonstrate the return on investment for our proposal? We’ll need to project two financial streams. First, the total costs for building, managing, and monitoring our project over the investment horizon. And second, the financial return we expect from doing so. For this project, we’re likely not generating any cash flow. But we’re avoiding future costs incurred from storms and sea level rise. We need to detail such “avoided costs.” We should also try to put a value on other ecosystem services that our project will generate (e.g., habitat for fish, carbon sequestration, runoff mitigation). Projecting along these lines is not easy, but it’s not impossible. It’s also necessary.
Doing all of the above takes a lot of work and necessitates highly skilled teams. NGOs are always resource constrained and operate with extremely tight budgets. An effective strategy may be to persuade donors—especially institutional donors that support nature-based investment—to fund this work. I’m not talking about funding the project itself; the government can do that. I’m talking about paying for the people power to do all of the work noted above.
COVID-19 is an extraordinary health and humanitarian crisis that endangers our most vulnerable populations and the brave people on the front lines. At this time, global communities also have an opportunity to make progress on environmental initiatives that work for both nature and people. A move toward sustainability is even more important, now that we can see the kind of damage an unprecedented crisis (like climate change) can do to the world.
This article has been reprinted with minor stylistic changes from the original text on LinkedIn.