Infrastructure worldwide is widespread across sites that have been identified as internationally important for biodiversity, and its prevalence is set to increase, according to a new study. The researchers found at least 80% of the sites relevant to biodiversity have infrastructure, such as roads, mines, and fossil fuel-related constructs.
This is the first-time researchers have looked at the presence of infrastructure in the so-called Key Biodiversity Areas, or KBAs. This is a global network of sites recognized internationally for being highly important for species and their habitats. Infrastructure has previously been identified as one of the greatest drivers of threats to biodiversity.
“This study illustrates the crucial importance of ensuring smart infrastructure development that provides social and economic value for all, whilst ensuring positive outcomes for nature. Making this happen will be the challenge of our time,” Wendy Elliott, Deputy Leader for Wildlife at WWF and a study authors, said in a statement.
Infrastructure and biodiversity
The world faces a biodiversity crisis, and the impact of infrastructure development on biodiversity has been widely highlighted as a critical driver. Residential and commercial development, transport, energy production, mining and dams are identified as threats to almost half of the threatened species on the IUCN Red List, the researchers said.
Infrastructure causes conversion and fragmentation of habitats as well as pollution, disturbance, and direct mortality through collisions with vehicles and structures. And it can have impacts beyond the infrastructure site. It can also increase accessibility, which then leads to further development, clearance for agriculture and expansion of invasive species.
In their study, the researchers looked at 15,150 KBAs on land and found that 80% had infrastructure. There were multiple combinations of infrastructure types, with the most common being roads (75%), power lines (37%) and urban areas (37%). They also found that future planned infrastructure could have a further impact on the KBAs.
Countries in South America, Sub-Saharan, Central and Southern Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia were the ones to have the highest proportion of extractive claims (for natural resources), concessions or planned development in their KBAs. Further infrastructure is planned in all the KBAs in Bangladesh, Kuwait, the Republic of the Congo and Serbia, they found.
“Infrastructure is essential to human development but it’s about building smartly,” Ash Simkins, study lead author, said in a statement. “This means ideally avoiding or minimizing infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity. If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible.”
Governments and companies then need to find effective ways to reconcile infrastructure development with conservation, the researchers said. Policy can be a way to mitigate impacts, asking for strict adherence to regulations at the early stages of the project. There’s also a role for financiers, who can have more stringent safeguard requirements.
The study was published in the journal Biological Conservation.