Carbon emissions of infrastructure development

Identifying strategies for reconciling human development and climate change mitigation requires an adequate understanding of how infrastructures contribute to well-being and greenhouse gas emissions. While direct emissions from infrastructure use are well-known, information about indirect emissions from their construction is highly fragmented. Here, we estimated the carbon footprint of the existing global infrastructure stock in 2008, assuming current technologies, to be 122 (−20/+15) Gt CO2. The average per-capita carbon footprint of infrastructures in industrialized countries (53 (±6) t CO2) was approximately 5 times larger that that of developing countries (10 (±1) t CO2). A globalization of Western infrastructure stocks using current technologies would cause approximately 350 Gt CO2 from materials production, which corresponds to about 35-60% of the remaining carbon budget available until 2050 if the average temperature increase is to be limited to 2 °C, and could thus compromise the 2 °C target. A promising but poorly explored mitigation option is to build new settlements using less emissions-intensive materials, for example by urban design; however, this strategy is constrained by a lack of bottom-up data on material stocks in infrastructures. Infrastructure development must be considered in post-Kyoto climate change agreements if developing countries are to participate on a fair basis.

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