The most important biodiversity meeting of the decade, the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity (COP15), opened one day ago. More than 20,000 delegates and representatives arrived from more than 150 countries to Montréal, Canada, in the last few days.
To do so, they used different types of transportation, such as airplanes, buses and private cars. Transportation infrastructure projects are an important part of our lives.
Roads in Colombia total more than 206,000 kilometers and connect regions of a country with a very complex geography. But these developments also have an environmental and ecological impact. A UN report, launched today during the conference, analyzed the potential risks, as well as possible benefits, of road and rail projects in the pipeline. The document, which used data from planned projects in 137 countries, estimated the impact that large transportation projects would have on animal populations, carbon storage and nitrogen retention.
The study also indicates what effects the projects would have on the creation of new jobs and the countries' Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
"A well-planned transportation infrastructure is crucial for human development. But our expansion continues to pose a huge threat to nature. It is essential that national governments and industry can weigh the ecological consequences of transport development against the social and economic benefits," said Andy Arnell, co-author of the study.
The research, carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), concluded that planned roads and railroads will cross some 60,000 kilometers of protected areas or key biodiversity areas. The most serious effects on these areas are to be found in central and western Europe and South America.
he projects would also affect the habitats of nearly 2,500 species of animals such as birds, amphibians and mammals, or 60% of the species considered in the study. Of these, 42 species face a more than 10% risk of decline.
The tropics are the area of the world where there is the greatest risk that new projects will accelerate the decline of species. The countries that would be most affected, the study indicates, are Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
The planned roads and railroads could also result in the release of 883 million tons of carbon from the trees and vegetation that would be removed. Trees naturally retain carbon dioxide, one of the most well-known greenhouse gases. Releasing this gas into the atmosphere contributes to global warming. Moreover, the research concluded that these projects will create 2.4 million new jobs worldwide. The new roads and railroads would lead to a GDP increase of 1.3 % in "developing" countries in regions such as Africa and South America, while in North America, Europe and Australasia, they would generate an increase of 0.1 %.
The countries with the most kilometers of planned transport infrastructure are China (75,153 km), Russia (38,370 km) and Brazil (23,814 km). Based on the environmental risks and economic benefits that the infrastructure projects would represent, the researchers classified the countries into four categories. The first considers the projects with the highest risk and lowest benefit, where Bolivia, Peru and Hungary are located. Next, there is the category of highest risk and highest benefit, where countries such as Indonesia, Russia, China, Brazil and Argentina are. Then, in the lowest risk/lowest return category are most countries, mainly in Africa, northern South America, Australia and parts of Asia. This category, the study indicates, merits an analysis of the return on investment. Finally, there is the lower risk/higher return category, which includes countries in South Asia and Central Asia, as well as the United States and Mexico.
The researchers created an online tool to visualize the risks and benefits of projects in different countries around the world.
What would these results imply for country planning? In a presentation of the findings, Han Men, China's representative to UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC), said, "We don't see this study as a replacement for national planning, but it is a good tool to feed into this process."
Arnell, one of the co-authors, further explained that the study is not completely detailed, but "provides a snapshot of projects, endangered species, and emissions and economic impacts, and does not negate the need for detailed local and regional assessments of project risks and benefits."
Men noted that, as it necessarily requires infrastructure, national planning should consider a comprehensive process for doing so. For example, by considering the impacts of projects on what scientists call "ecological connectivity".
As Julián Leyva, forestry engineer of the National Roads Institute (Invías), explained to this newspaper a few months ago, "when a new road is built, it breaks the ecosystem scheme, it divides it. Fauna species seek to move from one side to the other, maintaining their usual patterns."
So, one of the real-life effects that some roads can have is that they affect the routes of many species of animals. The result of this can be drastic for the lives of some animal species, which end up having a higher risk of being run over on the roads. In Colombia, the risk is great for opossums, fox dogs, anteaters, squirrels and iguanas, but it is estimated that more than one million animals have died on Colombian roads since the problem began to be recorded.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 CBD COP15 Fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. \It was first published by El Espectador on 8 December 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Animal species from tropical countries would be the most affected by these road and railroad projects / Credit: Óscar Guesgüan Serpa.