Why development results should no longer be concrete

It’s not just plastic. Concrete must also make way for nature-based 21st Century development solutions.

By Terence Hay-Edie, Programme Advisor, GEF Small Grants Programme, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub.

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In Bangkok, new concrete skyscrapers, subways, and rail terminals have sprung up at breakneck speed. ©Andreas Brucker/Unsplash

BANGKOK — Here in the Thai capital, new concrete skyscrapers, subways, and rail terminals have sprung up at breakneck speed, transforming the skyline as well as the ways in which people live, commute, and work. Neighbouring China alone may have laid down more concrete — the literal foundation of 21st Century development — in a single decade than the United States has over the last 100 years.

The environmental impact of concrete is enormous. By many estimates, it accounts for up to 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Another way to look at it: if concrete were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Concrete is cheap and easy to use, so demand is high, possibly outstripping the world’s available sand. Some 4 billion tonnes of Portland cement are manufactured each year or half a ton for every person on earth. Reducing our dependence on it is a huge challenge.

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If concrete were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter. ©UNDP DRC

But even as it facilitates so many aspects of modern life, concrete doesn’t actually guarantee long-term development and resilience.

In many small island developing states, dredging for sand to make concrete is eroding coastlines even faster than climate change. A seawall built today, rather than an asset for future generations, may be a net liability because of recurring costs associated with operating and maintaining it.

The concrete lining many rivers deprives wetlands of life-nourishing water and ecosystem support while increasing urban flash flood risk.

Just look at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which breached the engineering solutions of the 1950s to become the most devastating storm in US history. Nor did concrete seawalls protect coastal Japan when it was struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami six years later.

And still, concrete — and the tangible development progress it evokes — remains a favourite building material around the world.

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In many small island developing states, dredging for sand to make concrete is eroding coastlines even faster than climate change. ©UNDP Tuvalu/Aurélia Rusek

Make room for nature

In September 2020, the 75th United Nations General Assembly will convene a Nature week. One month later, the Convention on Biological Diversity will renew its targets to safeguard life on Earth. Amid dire new warnings about climate change and surging protest movement, this next General Assembly must adopt a transformative agenda.

While concrete played a vital role in development in the 20th Century, “nature-based solutions” ought to supplant concrete, along with plastics, in the 21st.

Millions of years of evolution have already solved some of the most complex biochemical and sustainability challenges facing humanity today.

A simple bacterium can survive at 1,000ºC five km under the ocean. Sustained by healthy ecosystems, the tiny Arctic tern can fly more than 71,000 km from Greenland to Antarctica. Great whales can sequester 30 tones of C02 inside their bodies, seeding the oceans with life-giving phytoplankton.

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Great whales can sequester 30 tones of C02 inside their bodies, seeding the oceans with life-giving phytoplankton. ©UNDP Panamá

Human recognition of these nature-based solutions is growing.

In wealthy cities such as Singapore, where UNDP has launched a technology innovation hub, a new generation of skyscrapers is being built with cross-laminated timber, which stores more CO2 than it emits.

Homes in the Pacific incorporate flexible raffia bark and rope, which can twist and bend to withstand hurricane-force winds. Bypassing expensive treatment plants, water supplies in Bogotá and New York now rely on watersheds within well protected and conserved natural areas.

Concrete itself may soon be disrupted. Trials at MIT are redesigning CO2 cement, while chemists in South Africa have designed the first bio-brick, made from human urine at room temperature.

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Water supplies in many cities will increasingly rely on watersheds sourced from a global network of protected and conserved natural areas. ©GEF SGP Colombia

UNDP is working with governments and other partners to manage the complex challenges of 21st Century development through game-changing innovations and systems thinking.

Their outcomes that may be less easily measured or visible to the naked eye than tonnes of concrete poured or km of seawalls built. But these are the solutions our planet, and all of us who inhabit it, need now.

Terence Hay-Edie is a Programme Advisor with the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) implemented by the UNDP. Since its inception in 1992, the SGP has provided cumulative funding of over $640 million to civil society organizations in 128 countries worldwide to develop innovative nature-based solutions to address the interlinked crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and land degradation. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

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