The demand for built infrastructure continues to grow as populations climb and the demand for more efficient systems for moving goods and people increase. Linear Infrastructure, such as roads, transmission lines, etc., alter ecological conditions, fragment natural habitats, and consequently have the potential to reduce populations of many wildlife species. They can also lead to induced impacts associated with opening up previously inaccessible areas to human activity, making natural areas more vulnerable to human-causes disruption, such as end-use changes, increased hunting or poaching and introduction of exotic species.
It's one of the biggest challenges being faced by developed and developing nations, preserving, and stabilizing fragile ecosystems while still progressing with the creation of modern energy, transportation, and telecommunications assets.
In Canada, development pressures of different kinds are creating havoc for our existing biodiversity. The affordable housing crisis seen in many of the country’s larger cities is causing governments to look to push outside the municipal boundaries and into agriculture properties and wetlands, forests, grasslands, and other areas where wildlife will be pressured by the expansion. The need for expanded telecommunications and clean energy networks means tracts of lands for electrical infrastructure, which is sometimes routed through sensitive natural areas.
How the climate has changed already, and its impact on Canadian infrastructure, also raises important questions on biodiversity. In the north, the shorter timeframe during which ice roads can be relied upon is increasing the need for new more permanent roadways to be constructed. And many of these roads will need to be built on permafrost, the depth of which is beginning to fluctuate also as a result of the rising temperatures in these parts of the country.
Similar challenges exist in other parts of the world. Africa is currently experiencing an explosion of linear infrastructure development, with the number and extent of roads, railways, power lines and pipelines rapidly expanding. However, in these developing countries, public infrastructure development most often depends on financing from international funding institutions, which are more and more streamlining biodiversity conservation into their projects.
The Balancing Act
There are multiple approaches to avoid or minimize impacts of infrastructure on biodiversity and our team has worked with infrastructure stakeholders to identify these actions:
- To avoid impact on key biodiversity values, WSP has worked on detailed line route studies for transmission line projects, considering biodiversity early in the line route definition, using high level GIS processing and identifying the line route with least impacts on sensitive biodiversity values.
- To minimize potential impacts of transmissions lines on bird population, WSP conducts detailed surveys of birds, gathering information on their population, habitat, and movements, in order to identify sensitive areas where bird diverters can be installed on powerlines to avoid bird mortality from collision with powerline cables.
- In Kenya, WSP contributed in defining the design and locations of wildlife crossing structures for an important highway project to minimize connectivity disruption for wildlife. This was completed based on thorough biodiversity data collection and wildlife habitat suitability modeling. This work relied on many innovations, which will set a standard for future ESIAs: the formal engagement of transport-ecologists from Africa as a ‘brains trust’; deployment of internet-enabled remote camera-traps; the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify target fauna; the use of systematic surveys, existing data and expert opinion to develop habitat suitability models to predict the occurrence of wildlife and movement pathways; and the use of rigorous statistical methods to identify wildlife crossing locations.
By engaging with impacted stakeholders, solutions can be found to help adapt the ecosystem and mitigate the impacts of the infrastructure developed within it.
Biodiversity can be integrated in infrastructure development through many ways, including strategic planning, thorough impact assessment, implementation of the mitigation hierarchy, and collecting and using biodiversity data in decision making. It is also important to develop comprehensive and implementable environmental management plans, with associated biodiversity action plans and species action plans as necessary based on the ecosystem in which the infrastructure is being built.
For developing nations, where funding is being provided by the finance sector, biodiversity no-net-loss or net-gain requirements set in funding agencies’ international standards are particularly relevant for the infrastructure sector and are helping mainstreaming biodiversity consideration into projects. The finance sector has an important role to play in ensuring that ecosystems are protected as part of the funding requirements.
How we manage both the needs of growing networks for energy and transportation with the needs to protect and restore our biodiversity as part of our net zero goal for 2050 is a delicate balancing act, but one that must be achieved.