Holistic planning of Road/Rail Infrastructure Helps Nature

Holistic planning of Road/Rail Infrastructure Helps Nature

In a new study related to transport infrastructure, the United Nations report reveals that holistic planning of major road and railway infrastructure can better protect nature, mitigate emissions and enhance economic benefit.

Launched at the UN’s Biodiversity Conference (COP15), the report, Mapping Environmental Risks and Socio-Economic Benefits of Planned Transport Infrastructure: A Global Picture forecast the impact that large-scale transport infrastructure projects currently underway or planned in 137 countries will have on wildlife populations, carbon storage and nitrogen retention, in comparison to the anticipated boosts to jobs and countries’ GDP.  Experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) authored the report.

The authors claim that there has not been a comparable global review of the ecological risks and economic benefits of planned transport infrastructure projects.

Study co-lead Andy Arnell, from UNEP-WCMC, said: “Well-planned transport 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 social and economic benefits.

“Our study is by no means exhaustive – it provides a snapshot of projects, species under threat and emissions and economic impacts, and does not override the need for detailed local and regional risk-benefit assessments of projects. However, we hope it will encourage further scrutiny for high-risk projects, and that our methods provide a springboard for further analysis of the risks from major road and rail developments.”  

Rowan Palmer, UNEP’s Sustainable Infrastructure Investment Lead, said: “The challenge of sustainable human development that maximises benefits for both people and nature is a vital topic of negotiation and discussion here and now at COP15. Our study presents a new way for countries to evaluate trade-offs and better plan major transport projects.

“Over time, we hope our work will be developed to examine the knock-on impact of infrastructure construction on whole ecosystems, as well as more nuanced analysis of socio-economic benefits and risks. In the short-term, we hope it will inspire governments and planners to engage with fine-scaled metrics and robust local assessments.


  • Nearly half a million kilometres (489,730 km) of road and rail development is currently planned or
  • is being built
  • China has the most road and rail planned (75,153 km), followed by Russia (38,370 km) and Brazil
  • (23,814 km)
  • Most of these planned road and rail projects will finish in the near future, i.e., within 10/15 years.
  • However, the exact time frame is unknown, as is project  fate – projects could be delayed, never constructed, or even abandoned once complete.



•  Nearly 60% of the species in our study (2472 out of 4096) overlap with risk areas from planned transport infrastructure. Of these, 42 species are at risk of a >10% decline in their probability of persistence.

•  Highest risks to species’ persistence are found in the global tropics, specially Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and South America.

•  As species selected in this study are already of conservation concern, and the loss (i.e., extinction) of any species is irreversible, the increased risks described here should be seriously considered.

Conservation areas

•  Approximately 12% of planned transport infrastructure length crosses conservation areas (i.e., either protected areas, 7.3%, or Key Biodiversity Areas, 6.9%)

•  Highest risk to conservation areas, based on length crossing into either PAs or KBAs, are found in Central and Western Europe (Poland, Germany), and South America.

•  As well as risks to the biodiversity and/or ecological processes in these areas, new transport  infrastructure may disrupt ongoing conservation management.

Wilderness areas

•  1.6% (approx. 8000km) of planned infrastructure crosses wilderness, i.e., areas largely undisturbed by human development.

•  Highest risks to wilderness areas were found in North America (Canada) and South America (Brazil, Peru).

•  Although not all countries have wilderness areas, for those that do, new infrastructure developments crossing into these areas can be a precursor to  large scale land use change.


  • The total direct risk of infrastructure development on carbon storage is approx. 883 million tonnes of carbon loss from vegetation biomass and soils (up to 1m depth).  Highest risks are in
  • boreal and tropical areas where large forests and  carbon-dense peatland soils are found.
  • Global infrastructure development potentially risks approx. 1.17 million tonnes of nitrogen no
  • longer being retained by vegetation
  • Pollinator dependent food production is liable to be stressed by infrastructure development through land conversion and habitat reduction. Impacts are high in temperate regions (USA and Europe), as well as in India, China and Argentina.
  • The development of road and rail infrastructure could allow access to new areas,  resulting in illegal deforestation and land conversion (e.g., to agriculture or mining).


  • GDP increase associated with planned road and rail infrastructure ranges from approx. 0.1% (17.4 billion USD) across North America and Australasia to 1.3% (4.4 billion USD) for the lower income countries (World Bank classification) outside Europe, North America and Australasia.  The largest absolute  benefits are expected in countries classified as upper middle income outside Europe, North America and Australasia. Here GDP gains of 0.9% or 212.2 billion USD (per year) are estimated.
  • Highest GDP increases in absolute terms are in Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, driven by large, planned rail infrastructure investment. Similarly, Brazil and Argentina have large-scale rail infrastructure projects planned that may deliver significant wider economic benefits.


•  Roughly 2.4 million new jobs globally (an increase of 0.19%) are associated with planned road and rail infrastructure.

•  Significant positive effects on employment are projected in Pakistan, Tajikistan and India, Mali, and Uzbekistan, primarily due to planned rail infrastructure projects in these countries.

•  The literature is mixed in terms of benefits to employment from increasing transport infrastructure

• The analysis focused on low and low to middle  income countries where there is better evidence for transport infrastructure boosting employment.


• Higher risk – lower benefit: Bolivia, Peru and Hungary fall in this category for which infrastructure plans require highest scrutiny.

• Higher risk – higher benefit: examples include Indonesia, Russia, China, Brazil and Argentina – typically those with the largest quantities of planned transport infrastructure. Plans for this category should also be reassessed.

• Lower risk – lower benefit: majority of countries are in this category, spread mostly in Africa, northern South America, Australia, and parts of Asia. It is worth considering return on investment for these countries.

• Lower risk – high benefit: mostly in South and Central Asia, but also USA and Mexico, along with a few southern African countries. The favourable  trade-off in this category should mean their plans are of least concern overall.


Planned road and rail database: potential improvements include greater geographic coverage, better data accessibility, increased update frequency. More involved changes for longer term feasibility include introducing requirements for data transparency for infrastructure developers,

as well as providing details on progress and postconstruction monitoring.

Biodiversity: risk metrics could be improved by including species-specific impact distances, coupled with further research on how response to infrastructure varies by species. It would also be beneficial to incorporate less-studied indirect risks, e.g., connectivity, and cumulative risks from multiple projects.

Ecosystem services: modelling land use change  and settlements associated with new road and rail infrastructure, as well as estimating economic costs from lost ecosystem services would be useful for future analysis. Similarly, modelling services provided to ‘downstream’ beneficiaries and considering risks to infrastructure from depletion of services would also improve understanding of impacts.

Socio-economic benefits: as the relationship  between new infrastructure and economic growth is still not clear cut, further research is needed. This is also true for employment benefits where the evidence is especially mixed. Social impacts  need more research, especially on how transport infrastructure impacts different groups, including those that may be more vulnerable, such as indigenous peoples.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here