In this article published online by Taylor & Francis on 10 Jul 2019 titled Sustainable development and mega infrastructure: an overview of the issues written by Sophie Sturup & Nicholas Low is such an achievement that it is worth republishing for the benefit of all in the Euro-MENA region.


Sustainable development is a concept which has only recently been applied to the analysis of infrastructure megaprojects. Yet new built infrastructure has a crucial role to play in both the continued and future development of communities, societies and ultimately the world economy and global ecosystem. This paper discusses the meaning of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ in terms understood from its origins in the relationship between economic development and the conservation of the natural world. While the definition of sustainability has perhaps moved beyond its origins, it remains the case that no condition of sustainability can be conceived without bringing our relationship to the natural world into balance, and thus we work from this perspective from which we explore some of the ways sustainability might be applied to megaprojects. In so doing, we hope to open a discussion to which future contributions to this journal can contribute.


Our thesis is that both human economic and social activity, and the infrastructure that makes that activity possible must contribute to sustainable development. This is because the infrastructure that is installed especially via megaprojects not only has impacts on sustainability while it is under construction, it also locks in for long periods the impact on sustainability from the social and economic activities it either supports or restricts. Thus when we talk about sustainability and megaprojects we are concerned with more than just the infrastructure itself. Infrastructure for sustainable development must be concerned with what is built or not built, the processes that surround decisions to build or not build, the impacts of construction (socially, environmentally and economically), changes to governance and the institutions connected with the process of developing infrastructure. It also must be concerned with how, by whom and to what extent the infrastructure is used. In the perspective we elaborate here, all of these elements of society and economy taken together, megaproject individually and for megaproject development in toto, impinge upon the sustainability of human existence. For example, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU, 2016) points to the importance of infrastructure investment on efforts to move to a more sustainable human existence on the planet. The Council articulates three desirable ‘I’s: innovation, investment and inclusion in the following statement:

Complete de-carbonization of the world economy by 2070 at the latest can only be achieved by profoundly transforming energy systems and other high-emissions infrastructures. This transformation could inspire innovation and channel investment into sustainability and climate protection, e.g. into sustainable infrastructures that need to be established and expanded. At the same time, the transformation could combat inequality and promote inclusion within societies and globally, thus becoming an equity project. (WBGU, 2016: 1, emphasis added)

Plainly, however, embedded within this statement there is a question about how ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are to be understood. What, in particular, is the priority to be given to environmental sustainability within that understanding?

In what follows we first address this question and reach a conclusion. We do so not to lay down a definitive truth, but in order to invite serious debate about sustainable development. We acknowledge that diverse valid answers are possible depending on alternative views about the potentially conflicting priorities of maintaining, restricting or regulating economic growth, of supporting economic enterprise, of maintaining market freedom, of reinforcing social cohesion, of reducing social inequality and of protecting the Earth’s biodiversity. After setting out our normative understanding of sustainable development we outline one way in which the contested diversity may be analysed. We then turn our attention to the application of our analysis to the development of mega infrastructure projects.

Before moving on, however, let us just clarify how we use the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’. Sustainability, the noun, is the property or quality of being able to be sustained – a property of a thing, a species, a process, a culture, a society etc. Sustainable, the adjective, is the measure of the degree to which something can be sustained. In proper use then, sustainability requires an identification of what is to be sustained and a normative idea of how and to what extent it should be sustained. This is why it is impossible to talk about sustainability without including a normative element in the discussion and defining what is to be sustained. Something can only be said to be ‘sustainable’ if it is measured against some criteria, and those criteria will be based on normative principles.

We find that the term ‘sustainability’ is frequently couched in statements such as ‘sustainability requires that (something should be done)’. When used in this way it is important to read carefully what the author is saying should be sustained and how its ability to be sustained is to be measured. Often enough ‘sustainability’ is used interchangeably with ‘sustainable development’. But in such discussions it is frequently difficult to tell how ‘development’ is defined, what kind of ‘development’ is to be sustained, and over what time period.

In approaching our answer to the question of how sustainable development is to be understood, we first undertake a brief historical overview of how the concept of sustainability entered into, and persisted in, the vocabulary of economic and social development. We then argue that ‘environmental sustainability’ should be regarded as a normative principle for humanity that is as powerful, and as necessarily contested, as democracy and justice. Yet, because the principle is contested we need to be aware of the range of ways in which it can be interpreted.

A historical overview of the concept of sustainable development

The need for a form of economic development that was ‘sustainable’ developed from an awareness of the fact that continued economic growth depended on continuing inputs from the natural environment. As Thiele (2013, p. 15) tells us, ‘A German mining administrator of the time [1770s], Hans Carl von Carlowitz, became worried about the loss of forests in his region. The smelting of ores to produce metals required large amounts of wood to fire the furnaces’. The destruction of forests in Saxony for fuel threatened the mining industry, so von Carlowitz devised methods of sustainable (nachhaltende, literally meaning ‘lasting’) use of forests. From the start, then, the term ‘sustainable’ connected the concern for preserving economic growth and its social benefits over the long term with an awareness of the limits of natural resources on which growth depends.

Two hundred years later (in the 1970s), driven by growing scientific knowledge of global environmental limits to economic growth, the idea of sustainability came to be applied to the need to contain and direct economic development. The concept of sustainable development was presented as a way to prevent economic growth from eroding and ultimately destroying the environmental supports on which the economy and the welfare of societies depends.

The authors of the influential book entitled Limits to Growth expanded the concept of sustainability from local to global environments and ecological systems, and attempted to model a world that was sustainable ‘without sudden and uncontrollable collapse’, and which was at the same time capable of satisfying the basic requirements of all its people (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972, p. 158, and up-dated to 2005). In awareness of the social and economic needs of the developing world, the authors saw that efforts at environmental protection had to be reconciled with the aim of generating economic growth as a pathway for lifting populations of the developing world1 out of poverty.

These concerns became embedded in the discourse of ‘sustainable development’ following the Brundtland Commission Report (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], 1987) which addressed sustainable development in the following terms:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities (WCED, 1987, para 27).

Reading the definition without its fuller context can give a false impression that the WCED Report was all about sustainable growth in the developing world. Consider, however, the introductory words of the Chair of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland:

The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word “environment” a connotation of naivety in some political circles. The word “development” has also been narrowed by some into a very limited focus, along the lines of “what poor nations should do to become richer”, and thus again is automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in questions of “development assistance”. But the “environment” is where we all live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode (WCED, 1987: Chairman’s Foreword).

This approach to sustainable development became embedded in subsequent declarations of the United Nations such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)2 in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)3 in 2015. Although, in these UN statements, the underlying concept of sustainable development followed the Brundtland philosophy, the implementation of sustainable development was subdivided into goals for its achievement, for instance eight goals in the case of the MDGs and seventeen in the case of the SDGs. Goal 7 of the MDGs was ‘Ensure environmental sustainability’. ‘Climate action’ was Goal number 13 of the SDGs. Unintentionally, in our view, this reduction of a core philosophy into the managerial idea of ‘goals’ fed the notion that ‘sustainable development’ itself was a divisible concept, with environmental sustainability being but one among a number of ‘goals’ of equal worth.

The managerial approach was developed by Elkington (1997) who conceived the idea of the ‘triple bottom line’, an approach frequently applied by companies, governments and their consultants to the evaluation of projects in which different criteria of equal weight are applied to arrive at an overall ‘sustainability’ outcome (see discussion below). But, as with the UN statements, triple bottom line accounting can be misunderstood (ibid: p. 71). Elkington, citing management theorist Stuart Hart (1997), argues that ‘sustainability’ goes beyond ‘greening’ understood as ‘making business more efficient and trimming costs’4. As Hart remarks, ‘the challenge is to develop a sustainable global economy: an economy that the planet is capable of supporting indefinitely’. There is a lexical, or nested, order of environmental, social and economic imperatives identified here: Society, Elkington (1997, p. 73) states, ‘depends on the economy – and the economy depends on the global ecosystem, whose health represents the ultimate bottom line’.

A normative principle: ‘what should be sustained and made sustainable’

From this brief historical overview of the concept can we derive a normative principle of sustainable development? The clearest conceptualisation of ‘sustainability’ consistent with its origins in the history of the use of the term ‘sustainable development’ comes from the economist Herman Daly (1996). Daly begins by examining the basic assumption of conventional economics, and macroeconomics in particular: that the economy is a ‘closed system’ with a circular flow of exchange of goods and services and factors of production between firms and households (ibid: p. 47). As Daly remarks of this conceptualisation of economics:

What is truly flowing in a circle can only be abstract exchange value – exchange value abstracted from the physical dimensions of the goods and factors that are being exchanged. Since an isolated system of abstract exchange value flowing in a circle has no dependence on an environment, there can be no problem of natural resource depletion, nor environmental pollution, nor any dependence of the macro-economy on natural services, or indeed anything at all outside itself (ibid: p. 47).

We have seen, as Daly argues, that economies actually exist within an environment. Conventionally, of course, environmental issues have not been ignored, but regarded as ‘externalities’ which, as the term implies, are ‘external’ to the model of economics and must be dealt with by laws or politics, and with other arguments which Daly addresses (but for reasons of space in the journal we cannot go into). Daly’s contribution is to bring human society and the natural environment into a new vision of economics. The macro-economy (at any geographical scale) must, in the light of this vision and of the concept of sustainable development, be viewed as an ‘open system’ with inputs from its environment (resources and human labour) and outputs into it (of waste products) into the same environment and beyond. The conventional vision of market economics is accurate so far as it goes and does its job very well, that of ‘allocation’ of investment to aggregate demand, in short making sure that what is produced, and in what quantity, matches what people want and can pay for. But sustainable development requires a new vision, central to which is the scale of the economy in terms of its impact on environmental sources of raw materials and sinks for waste products.

Daly (1996, p. 50) explains what he means by ‘scale’:

The term “scale” is shorthand for the physical scale or size of the human presence in the ecosystem, as measured by population times per capita resource use. Optimal allocation of a given scale of resource flow within the economy is one thing. Optimal scale of the whole economy relative to the ecosystem is an entirely different problem (a macro-macro problem).

The normative principle to which Daly’s vision of sustainable development points is simply this: the scale of an economy must be held to the level of inputs (human and environmental) and sinks for waste products that can be sustained indefinitely, meeting the needs of the present population without, as Brundtland puts it, ‘compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In Daly’s terms, the principal goal of sustainable development is to maintain ‘a scale of the economic subsystem that is within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem’ (Daly, 1996, p. 166)5.

Daly described himself as an environmental macro-economist. But insofar as economists today accept the reality of climate change and other environmental constraints on real economies (at global and national levels) and moreover try to build economic instruments into their models such as carbon taxes or carbon trading systems, they too have to be considered ‘environmental economists’. Alternatively, Herman Daly might today be considered merely ‘an economist’.

Of course Daly’s vision is by no means shared by all, or perhaps even a majority of economists. Daly himself cites his disagreement with Laurence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, who allegedly dismissed the book by Meadows, Meadows, and Randers (1992) as ‘worthless’ (cited by Daly, 1996, p. 6). More recently, the day after publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) advice to governments of the cost of global warming, the ‘contributing economics editor’ of The Australian newspaper, Judith Sloan (2018), writes: ‘Here we go again, a group of like-minded, henny-penny scientists telling us the world is about to be transformed in a bad way unless we act’6. She continues, ‘Mind you the IPCC report released yesterday ain’t (sic) science. It doesn’t set out refutable hypotheses and test them. In fact, we don’t even have reliable data on global temperatures’. Yet on the same day of the IPCC Report, the 2018 Nobel Prize for economics is announced for Nordhaus and Romer for ‘integrating climate change and technological innovation into economic analysis’7. These economists join earlier Nobel laureates Krugman (2009) and Stiglitz (2016) who appear to be in broad agreement with Daly at least on the matter of climate change.

However, while we agree with Daly that the normative principle derived from the conceptual history of sustainable development is correct. It should be clear that debates about sustainability and sustainable development are both contemporary and on-going. Research into infrastructure megaprojects can reveal the discursive assumptions of the personnel involved in case studies of such projects. In what follows we discuss one way in which interpretations of sustainability might be analysed in the field of mega infrastructure development.

Interpretations of sustainability and sustainable development

If, as we have postulated, ‘sustainability’ is a contested concept, it is open to multiple interpretations. It is important to note here that discursive assumptions almost always contain both positive (what is) and normative (what should be) elements. As has been argued elsewhere, these discursive assumptions constitute ways of being of the actors in the politics of megaprojects, especially those concerned with the planning, development and analysis of such projects (Sturup, 2010). As researchers, and therefore also actors in megaproject politics, we cannot ourselves avoid having a value position, and we have made our position clear in the above two sections. But, as researchers, it is also our business not to judge but to observe and describe the assumptions of participants in megaproject development and production. We want to be able to say: ‘This is what the people involved in the project thought, believed or assumed about it’. In this ‘observer’ role we are not making judgements (as we have in the preceding section) about what the people thought or ought to have thought.

Some research questions we need to ponder are: ‘How has the term “sustainable” been used in the discourse of the megaproject, and ‘What did those involved in this megaproject mean when they used the word “sustainable”?’ These are questions about what was the case, rather than questions about what ought to have occurred. But there is an irreducible normative aspect of such questions as Dobson (1998) argues.

In this respect, Dobson (1998, p. 61) points out, first, that there is an important distinction between ‘sustainable development’ and ‘environmental sustainability’. Sustainable development he claims is fundamentally an anthropocentric concept. It is about how humans can thrive and the human economy prosper when the limits imposed by the natural environment are included in the economic model. The viewpoint is that of humanity, a single species, not of the species at large of the natural world.

The impact of the human species on Earth is so vast that a term has been created to describe the era of human dominance: the ‘Anthropocene’. An assessment was recently made of the composition of the distribution of biomass on Earth – all forms of life – which seeks to quantify human impact on Earth (Bar-On, Phillips, & Milo, 2018). The study found that farmed poultry makes up seventy percent of all birds, farmed livestock makes up sixty percent of all mammals, with just four percent being wild mammals. ‘Since the rise of human civilisation’, the authors write, ‘eighty three percent of wild mammals have been lost, fifty percent of plants, fifteen percent of fish’. The Anthropocene human existence displaces other species and destroys wild habitat in what some scientists describe as the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ or the ‘Holocene Extinction’. Ceballos and Ehrlich (2018, p. 1080) comment that the rate of species extinctions in the period of human dominance is about one hundred times greater than the loss of species throughout prior geological time.

So sustainability viewed from the perspective of the Earth’s species as a whole (‘environmental sustainability’) cannot be exactly the same as sustainability viewed from an exclusively human perspective (‘sustainable development’). This is not to deny that the concept of ‘sustainable development’ pays attention to the environmental consequences of economic growth, for as Thiele (2013, p. 3) argues human development is intimately connected with the sustainability of the planet as a whole, whereby ‘sustainability concerns the global, long term impact of our practices, relationships and institutions because we live in a connected world’.

On the other hand, there is a view that the free market economy will of its own accord advance the sustainability of human society, and no valuation of Nature is acceptable other than Nature’s function for human welfare. So how can different approaches to the wider concept of sustainability be systematically analysed?

Dobson (1998) provides an example of the kind of work still needed in the contested conceptual space of ‘sustainability’. He identified different conceptions of ‘environmental sustainability’ and approached his inquiry by seeking answers to three questions:

  • What is to be sustained?
  • Why should it be sustained?
  • How should it be sustained?

His analysis of the literature (up to the late 1990s) led him to posit four conceptual types of ‘sustainability’, namely: a Cornucopian kind, an Accommodating type, a Communalist kind and a Deep Ecology type which he describes as follows:

The Cornucopian Type:8 This is where the natural world consists of resources for human use. The environment is just another form of capital: natural capital. Human-made capital may be substituted for natural capital if it is feasible and good for us. Our future lies in human improvement by means of human ingenuity. Where substitutability is not possible, the advancement of technological innovation will allow ‘critical natural capital’ to be sustained: ‘natural capital whose presence and integrity is pre-conditional for survival’ (Dobson, 1998, p. 43). The only valid ethical purpose is individual human welfare in aggregate. The first object of concern is the present generation of human needs and desires. In Dobson’s view this concept is not one of ‘environmental sustainability’, nor, in our view, one of ‘sustainable development’.

The Accommodating Type: This is where natural ecosystems critical to human survival – and for which there is no human substitute – must be sustained. Human welfare depends on the ‘health’ of these ecosystems: ‘The idea that animates [this conception], simply, is that what should be sustained are aspects and features of non-human nature whose loss would be irreversible’ (ibid: p. 47). But the ethical principle expressed in this conception is concern not just for the human species but for some aspects of the natural environment ‘for their own sake’ whose loss would be irreversible (ibid: p. 49). Human welfare comes first, not just material needs but also spiritual and aesthetic needs. Because our own welfare is tied in with that of non-humans, their welfare must also be considered. This conception is consistent with one kind of vision of sustainable development.

The Communalist Type: This conception further extends the ethical valuing of ecosystems whose evolved natural creations should, in some cases, be protected for their own sakes from irreversible processes of destruction. Dobson notes that in this conception, ‘if faced with the prospect of the irreversible loss of a species here and now, that loss should be carefully weighed against any putative benefit to future generations by incurring that loss (both to humans and non-humans)’. Humans have a custodial or ‘stewardship’ responsibility for the whole of Nature. We do not exercise that role just for the purposes of human welfare, but because we have a duty to Nature to do so. We humans are not the only creatures to count morally, but we are the only species in creation with the capacity for and therefore duty of care9. This conception is also consistent with a vision of sustainable development.

The Deep Ecology Type: Finally, in this conception, Nature has a right to exist independently of human beings. The non-human world is to be valued consistently in its own right. What is handed down and maintained for the future needs to retain in the process something of its original form and something of its identity. The natural world has intrinsic value even if there were no humans on the planet to value it. Dobson cites Holland (1994, p. 180) and Goodin (1992) in arguing that what is handed down to humans through the eons of ecological evolution needs to retain ‘something of its original form and something of its identity’. This is what, in Goodin’s terms, is a green theory of value: ‘which traces the peculiar value of naturally occurring properties of things to the history of their creation by processes outside ourselves’ (Goodin, 1992, p. 61). This eco-centric vision stretches the ethical imagination beyond ‘sustainable development’.

Dobson’s research, employing what he terms ‘an analytical typological’ approach, though published almost thirty years ago, remains instructive and valid. His work is one of the very few attempts to create a typology of the different ways in which ‘environmental sustainability’ as distinct from ‘sustainable development’ can be understood. The two middle types/categories earlier cited, but not the first and possibly not the fourth, could encompass the meaning of ‘sustainable’ in ‘sustainable development’.

There are of course many ways in which research on the normative meaning of sustainability and sustainable development might develop in relation to mega infrastructure projects. As a contested concept, one thing that seems to be needed now is an interrogation of the use of the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ in the practice of creating, justifying and deciding upon actual megaprojects. Therefore, a challenge for researchers of megaprojects is systematically to investigate case studies with a view to identifying a comparable typology from practice. Avenues for research might pursue the question of which of the above understandings of sustainability could be most useful in studying mega infrastructure projects, either in their development or in analysing their impact; and of course what ‘most useful’ might mean in these contexts and in particular cases. Such research might also lead to different analytical typologies.

We turn now from the normative focus central to Dobson’s work to a discussion of another kind of research into sustainability and infrastructure that addresses questions of a more positive nature that can be posed in analysing specific projects. How is the term ‘sustainability’ used? What does the use of ‘sustainability’ do to the process of analysis, development and implementation of infrastructure? In what sense is the infrastructure sustainable?

Applying the concept of sustainable development to impacts of infrastructure megaprojects

What sustainability perspectives mean for the impacts of infrastructure megaprojects is twofold. First, the construction of such projects creates an impact extending out from the local space in which the project takes place to the wider region and in certain respects, to the globe. Second, infrastructure megaprojects are designed to accommodate and sustain particular kinds of human activity. That activity may have an impact on the Earth over time and space, posing the question: is the activity itself sustainable?

Infrastructure megaprojects are very large constructions, typically with a price tag in excess of US$1 billion involving a variety of stakeholders and businesses with impacts on the wider economy of cities, regions and nations, and even on the global economy. They can potentially generate employment and profits in particular sectors and in particular places over time. They are often formulated and supported by governments. They look to open up social and economic opportunities and impose local and global costs. They also act to disguise or make automatic particular ways of living, for example lighting that is available at the flick of a switch dulls our comprehension of the resources used, and the environmental consequences of using electricity.

There is no doubt that economic and social development requires building infrastructure to facilitate physical mobility, provide water supply, conduct sewage away and process it, provide energy to homes and businesses, accommodate social services and house people in healthy conditions. The model of development of the industrialised and post-industrialised world has involved very large scale infrastructure projects whose construction has made profligate use of the environment as a source of materials and a sink for waste involving the construction of immense dams for water supply and energy generation, centralised sewage treatment plants and massive power stations fuelled by coal, gas and nuclear energy, plus road and rail projects contributing to high speed transport corridors, and even giant tower blocks for housing and social services.

A feature of this approach is what might be called ‘concentration-distribution’ or the ‘big project’ model. These are megaprojects that concentrate resources on a particular part of the system, backed up by widespread networks to disperse the value generated by the megaproject. For instance, a motorway or high speed railway concentrates resources to provide high speed mobility along a particular route, but their effect on overall mobility depends on the capacity of the whole network of local roads and railways, footpaths and cycle-ways to carry people to their desired destinations. A dam for water storage requires a reticulated water supply system, a sewage treatment plant and a sewerage network. A power station requires an energy grid to deliver electricity to homes and businesses. Educational, health and even housing megaprojects concentrate people in particular places for specific purposes: creating origins and destinations of travel.

Building industries and the employment they generate (at least in the short run) thrive on infrastructure megaprojects. But there are also social and environmental costs associated with their provision. Every megaproject in construction produces a certain quantum of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere. These projects often displace other land uses: green open space, social movement networks, agriculture, local ecologies. Megaprojects both in construction and operation generate waste10. The distribution of waste products from megaprojects (both in construction and operation) can also create issues of environmental injustice (see many of the essays in Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2003). Infrastructure megaprojects of all types furthermore can dramatically change local environments (not often for the better), and they are frequently opposed by people living in their shadow.

Socially and environmentally undesirable life-style habits can be ‘sustained’ by long-lived megaprojects. Because of their long life, projects such as these which influence human behaviour patterns negatively can create path dependencies that are ‘locked in’ to patterns that become barriers to sustainable development in the terms discussed above. The concept of path dependence has been explored in depth for transport systems by a number of authors. Curtis and Low (2012, pp. 27–40) identify technical and institutional aspects of path dependence in the context of road and rail infrastructures that amplify mobility thereby have a determining effect on urban and regional development, dispersing origins and destinations, inducing and increasing travel in urban systems, and thus (when most of the world’s transportation is still fossil fuelled11) increasing GHG emissions. Institutional path dependency means that political interests and communities of expertise gather around certain perceived ‘solutions’ which then become seemingly acceptable norms for addressing mobility problems.

Imran (2010) has argued that the path dependent transfer of the Western-style ‘road development model’ to the neglect of local transport alternatives more suited to conditions in Pakistan occurred because of the type of intervention advocated by international institutions in the pursuit of economic, social and environmental development goals. ‘This large gap in awareness is due to a complex range of path dependencies that arise as barriers to the development of a (suitable) sustainable transport system in Pakistan’ (ibid. p. 261).

While it seems likely that the concentration/distribution model of mega infrastructure development of the kind outlined will over time be spread to the poorer nations of the developing world as noted above, there are signs that the model itself may be on course for transformation in the developed world. The idea that essential services provided by megaprojects can only, and therefore should always, be provided on the concentration/distribution principle is beginning to be reassessed.

For example, in the transport sector, the proposition that building motorways relieves traffic congestion without giving proper attention to the distribution network of local roads and paths has been challenged (Metz, 2008). Second, in the static energy sector the mass production of rooftop solar generation, together with advanced batteries, is giving individuals, communities and businesses the choice to leave the electricity grid and its centralised power stations, not for reasons of ideology but of economics. For power station owners and investors this development is a vicious circle: the fewer the consumers, the higher the price of grid-based electricity and the greater the incentive for those consumers who can afford the investment in rooftop solar plus batteries to leave the grid12. It has been demonstrated that even in the heart of an Australian city such as Sydney, a terrace house in an ordinary street can gather or recycle its own water, process its own sewage, and generate its own electricity (Mobbs, 1998).

This raises the question of which is more environmentally sustainable: a large-scale cooperative response to infrastructure under the concentration/distribution model or a distributive model of infrastructure. The concentration/distribution model, with its associated infrastructure megaprojects will undoubtedly continue to serve the needs of populations for transport, energy, water and urban services worldwide for the foreseeable future. But it is as well to remember that it is not the only, nor necessarily the most appropriate or the most sustainable model for all contexts. Moreover, the sustainability of megaprojects in the terms discussed above must now be part of any evaluation of such projects.

Sustainability and the problematics of measurement

If the concept of sustainability is to be brought to bear on planning, deciding on and choosing infrastructure megaprojects, it would seem that some measurable criteria need to be applied. However, such a proposition is beset with pitfalls, and it is as well to recall the dictum attributed to many writers including Albert Einstein: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts’. Sustainability counts! But can it be counted, measured?

There are those who have proposed different methods of measurement (see Bell & Morse, 2003; Shen, Wu, & Zhang, 2011). But the concept of sustainability itself is contested and its aspects intertwined and even potentially conflicting in terms of economic, social and environmental dimensions. It is entirely possible that a megaproject can enhance material prosperity and economic growth while simultaneously doing serious damage to the global ecology. Such a project may also enhance social cohesion and welfare (or not).

Though the question of measurement will no doubt occupy future columns of this journal, it is too complex to discuss here in any detail. In some sense, it would be like trying to measure ‘democracy’ or ‘justice’. There are nonetheless two points worth stressing. First, unsustainability may be simpler to measure than sustainability. There is at least one specific indicator of unsustainability that is highly relevant, measurable, usable, specific and reasonably available: greenhouse gas emissions13. Fong et al. (2014) among many others have reviewed the means of assessing and reducing carbon emissions from transport in particular. Because climate change is such an all-embracing factor in every dimension of sustainability, it is fair to say that a megaproject that adds to (rather than diminishes) the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is unsustainable. Today such a proposition may still be considered debatable by some but, as global warming proceeds unchecked, for how much longer?

The act of measurement is often interpreted to mean breaking ‘sustainability’ down into its various components. Thus, Shen et al. (2011, p. 449) break the concept up into nine ‘economical’ aspects, five ‘social’ aspects and seven ‘environmental’ aspects. Each aspect is then scored for a particular project and the totals summed to give an overall measure of what the authors call ‘sustainability’.

We contend that these indicators measure environmental, social and economic impacts but not sustainability at all. There is a major difference. Impacts can usefully be measured separately. However, aggregating the separate impacts (even with weightings) does not measure sustainability within the historical meaning of the concept. Sustainability, as we have shown above, is a holistic concept which addresses the impact of economic growth (among other aspects) on the Earth’s critical natural systems. To reiterate Daly’s point: the goal of sustainability is to maintain a scale of the economy that is within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s ecosystem. This definition suggests there is a definitive point at which things become not sustainable, something which indicators designed to rank relative sustainability are not capable of measuring. There is, therefore, as Thiele (2013) argues, an urgent need to consider further the relationship between sustainability and the indicators chosen for it and to discover new ways to consider these matters as a whole. Unfortunately, as Bell and Morse (2003, p. 57) warn, ‘Projects geared to generating SD [sustainable development] indicators tend to become myopically focussed on technical issues (what indicators, how many, how to aggregate them etc.) rather than really consider usage to bring about change’.

Finally, an important addition to the problem of measurement is the fact that, for the most part, what is measured is risk. As Dimitriou, Oades, Ward, and Wright (2008) argue, risk, uncertainty and complexity are characteristic of all megaprojects and related decision-making.

Becker (2014, p. 135) describes analysing risk as ‘the practice of structuring risk scenarios and comparing them with the preferred scenario, making a risk analysis in answer to three questions: What can happen? How likely is it to happen? And, if it does happen what are the consequences?’ But, as he recognises, risk is attended by uncertainty. Following Wiek, Withycombe, and Redman (2011), Becker (2014, p. 136) suggests ‘sustainable development requires us to:

  • analyse the current situation;
  • define our preferred expected scenario;
  • analyse potential deviations from our preferred expected scenario [risk scenarios]; and
  • design and implement sets of activities that maintain our development trajectory along the preferred expected scenario’.

In this sense, the sustainability of megaprojects is about their contribution to scenarios of human behaviour.

Kahnemann (2011, pp. 140–141) offers the insight that risk assessment should be something like a dialogue between experts and the public. Citing Slovic (2000), he says, ‘When experts and the public disagree on their priorities, he [Slovic] says, “Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other”’. Again citing Slovic, Kahnemann (2011, p. 141) states that ‘”Risk” does not exist “out there”, independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Human beings have invented the concept of “risk” to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life. Although these dangers are real, there is no such thing as “real risk” or “objective risk”’.

Thus research into infrastructure megaprojects and sustainable development has a number of things to consider when dealing with issues of what is being sustained in the megaprojects we build, and how constructing and operating the megaproject will contribute to sustainability. Analyses of which options reduce the risk of unsustainability, and in what respect, are critical in evaluating megaprojects.

Some principles for evaluating the sustainability of megaprojects

With the above considerations in mind, is it even feasible to measure the sustainability of megaprojects? This must remain an open question and one that should be debated. While, as noted above, it is beyond the scope of this article to engage with the technology of measurement (i.e., indicators, weightings, risk assessments etc.), we can think through some principles that might be used to guide such technology. These include the following:

Recognising the lexical order: It is necessary for infrastructure developments (of all scales) to respect the lexical order inherent in the concept of sustainability. Put simply, human systems are ultimately dependent on natural systems. What we call ‘human society’ is a system for exploiting nature and distributing the product for human use (the economy) and for sustaining human relationships at every scale (global, national, local, society/community). So as a first priority, global human society must prevent nature from being exploited beyond its capacity to sustain human life, and some argue the biodiversity of all life in the long term. Dobson’s second and third concepts (above) are helpful in applying ‘sustainability evaluation’ to infrastructure. Global human society is represented by international environmental agreements under the auspice of the UN such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So investments in a mega infrastructure project must answer to how the project advances the goals of these accords. For example, an energy megaproject such as a power station or wind farm or solar array must show how it advances the goal of ‘affordable and clean energy’. In a rich country like Australia, in order to comply with UN SDG 7, the investment must demonstrate: ‘the increased use of renewable energy through new economic and job opportunities crucial to creating more sustainable and inclusive communities and resilience to environmental issues like climate change’ (UN SDG 7). A positive instance of such an investment is the AU$1.5 billion wind farm in rural Victoria (Australia) which has now been approved, but reduced in scale by about twenty percent in order to protect the nesting grounds of the Brolga, an endangered species of native bird (Hall & Carey, 2019, p. 4).

Reducing human inequality: This recognises that human society is severely stratified economically between nations (Edward & Sumner, 2013; Woodward, 2015) and within nations (Piketty, 2014). The UN SDGs give prominence to reducing global inequality, especially Goal 1, No Poverty, and Goal 2, Zero Hunger. The SDGs do not embody the above lexical order; if anything they reverse it, with SDGs 1 and 2 as, seemingly, the first priority. This is justifiable in that it recognises that, for poor nations, providing food, sanitation and safe water supply must take precedence over global environmental conservation. However, SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production (which specifically refers to infrastructure), seems to fudge the priority and fail to recognise the potential conflict between ecological sustainability and ‘providing a better life for all’ or ‘strengthening economic competitiveness’. Consider the damaging ecological impact of palm oil plantations in the poorest countries that mainly serve the consumption of the populations of rich countries. If infrastructure (e.g., roads and water supply) serves the palm oil industry we do not consider that investment ‘sustainable’ even if, in a global market it improves the competitive position of the producer nation. An even more egregious example would be forging such major infrastructure through the Amazon rainforest for agricultural or mining purposes, as seems now to be on the political agenda in Brazil.

Including the technological system containing the project: The concept of sustainability embodies ‘systems’ thinking: that is awareness of the system-wide effects of specific actions. From the environmental perspective, ‘system-wide’ means natural ecological systems (such as the climate system). Such thinking, however, should also be applied to technological systems, for instance the impact of a particular infrastructure project on the technological system it becomes part of. The wind farm example earlier mentioned above must be seen as part of an energy generation and supply system, one that includes aging coal-fired power stations, a variety of new ‘clean energy’ technologies and a myriad of individual investments in production and use of rooftop solar generators. It is the total impact of the technological system that is significant for natural ecological systems. Indeed, it is ultimately the total global economy which must fit within the ecological constraints of the planet.

A negative example comes from the same government that promoted renewable energy in the wind farm mentioned above. The Government of Victoria has approved a twelve lane motorway and tunnel from the growing Western suburbs of Melbourne to places of growing employment in and around the central business district. There is evidence from an earlier report (see Eddington, 2008) that the travel demand exists (Eddington, 2008). The motorway was pitched to the Government by a private toll-way company which, given the cost of the construction is to be shared with the Government, certainly believes the project to be profitable. There have been substantial criticisms of the project from political, economic and environmental viewpoints which we will not address here. Our point is that the decision to approve the project was made without evaluating its effects on the whole transport system for metropolitan Melbourne, and without the project and similar toll-way projects being part of analysis and planning for that system to respond effectively to future travel demands as the city grows in population14. Moreover, while the climate impact of energy systems has been vigorously debated in Australia in recent years, there has been little debate about the climate impact of transport systems even though each transport project is (individually) subject to environmental impact assessment – which, as we argued above, is not the same as sustainability assessment.

In short, what the above three sets of principles suggest is that if an infrastructure megaproject is to respond to the requirement of sustainability it must be able to show how it addresses the lexical order prioritising critical natural systems, how it reduces human social and economic inequality and how it is embedded within its technological system which in turn impinges on both the above.

How the politics of sustainability is affecting mega infrastructure development

Finally, a brief discussion is needed of the rapidly shifting context of infrastructure development (particularly as regards megaprojects) in which changing technologies are in certain ways interacting with political positioning. The awareness of the danger of climate change is already driving a sustainability transition15. Energy systems are rapidly being revolutionised with the use of rooftop solar, solar energy farms and wind power as well as other renewable energy sources coupled to storage batteries – from individual households to entire urban regions16. Vast centralised fossil-fuelled power stations with nationwide distribution grids are beginning to look vulnerable and perhaps obsolescent.

Several European countries are planning to phase out the use of the internal combustion engine entirely for transport, with the result that electrical recharging points will come to replace petrol stations. New companies and new production methods are developing to meet new demands. Regulatory vehicle and fuel taxation policies will have to catch up. As efforts to combat climate change continue to reshape industries, effects will begin to be seen in national economies, particularly for those countries dependent on export of fossil fuels.

There is a struggle within the business sector between those business elites and corporations that accept the climate change science, fear global warming and see opportunities for growth in low carbon technologies, and those corporations wedded to old carbon-based technologies. A report by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (Wiseman, Edwards, & Luckins, 2013) cites Pricewaterhouse Coopers (2012): ‘The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformation in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage, removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation. This suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international levels. Either way, business-as-usual is not an option’.

Mega infrastructure developments are, of course, contested in the political arenas of regions and nations throughout the world. While there is not space here to discuss these in any great length, it is clear from the preceding discussion that the varying models of sustainability earlier discussed will continue to be deployed in political defence of interests both venal and ethical, at the political grassroots and in the upper echelons of government. The questions of infrastructure megaprojects are especially subject to the governance models in play in particular locations. Such models integrate private and public sector actors, local and regional governments in a wide variety of different ways (see Butterfield & Low, 2017).

While national political economies may vary greatly in providing the context for struggles over sustainability, there is a global dimension in which these national economies are connected to a web of political economic institutions framed by the forces of ‘globalisation’ and the ‘global economy’ (Stiglitz, 2002). Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the sustainability of the global economy itself is being questioned. The focus here is both social and environmental. What is occurring in particular national and local contexts cannot be entirely separated from what is happening in the global political economy. In this regard, both global and local economic developments have significant impacts upon megaprojects and their impacts on – as Steffen et al. (2018, p. 1) put it – the sustainability of ‘biosphere, climate and society’.


In drawing this paper to a close, we need to ask whether we are today building the physical infrastructure, especially mega infrastructure projects, for a fair, prosperous and sustainable society: one which does not deplete natural resources faster than they are regenerated; one which does not destroy its own social foundations; one which delivers widespread economic benefits to both current and future generations? Or are we continuing to build the infrastructure for a society of the past whose institutions and practices are unsustainable?

These questions demand answers. They in turn imply/pose a range of important subsidiary questions:

  • What is the kind of infrastructure, especially mega infrastructure, required for a sustainable society?
  • How do we ensure that it is built?
  • What is stopping us building it?
  • How do we build it in the most economically efficient and socially fair manner?
  • How do we know that what we are building is the infrastructure we need for a sustainable future, and furthermore, how do we know it is sustainable?

The first part of this paper examined the origin of the concept of sustainable development and, explored the normative dimension of sustainability. It concluded that a sustainable society would be one in which the use of the natural world for economic and social purposes would be contained within the limits of natural sources and sinks. An examination of the application of this perspective to mega infrastructure in the latter part of the paper raises the question of what kind of infrastructure best contributes to sustainability, noting that the ‘big project’ model of infrastructure is not the only model and possibly not the most sustainable.

Keywords: Sustainable developmentsustainabilitymega infrastructure projectssustainable infrastructure


1 The ‘developing world’ is shorthand for the poorer nations of the world seeking to catch up economically with the older post-industrialised nations. There are other epithets, (such as the ‘Global South’) none of them more accurate. (accessed 16/10/2018). (accessed 16/10/2018).

4 Hart, at the time was Director of the Corporate Environmental Management Program at the University of Michigan. (Page reference not cited by Elkington).

5 Daly goes on to argue that the present profile of global economic growth must end, and that sustainable development requires a steady state economy with potential implications for the infrastructure industry. We are not in a position to take the argument that far, yet. But we hope that others will take the opportunity to examine Daly’s ideas critically and in greater depth than is possible in the present paper.

6 Sloan, J. (2018) ‘If disaster is nigh, at least we’ll be spared this amateur-hour claptrap’, The Australian, 09/10/2018: 4. The newspaper, part of the Murdoch stable, is Australia’s only national daily. When discussion of global warming is reduced by their opponents to childish language, we might conclude that ‘environmental economists’ have won the debate.

8 As in an infinite cornucopia or ‘horn of plenty’.

9 Thus, as referred to above, Steffen et al. (2018, p. 1) state, ‘Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System – biosphere, climate and societies’.

10 In this respect, nuclear energy is sometimes regarded as non-polluting (in terms of CO2). But the problem of safe, long term storage of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants has not been solved (Risoluti, 2004; Blowers, 2016).

11 Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, March 2016, accessed 15/05/2017.

12 Note, however, that the environmental costs of photovoltaic solar plus battery production may remain a serious problem.

13 The list, though incomplete, is taken from Bell and Morse (2003, p. 31).

14 Note that we are not arguing that the project is unsustainable, but that without the wider technological context we cannot know whether it is or not.

15 The overuse of carbon sinks (in land, sea and atmosphere) is of course not the only depletion of a natural resource by an unsustainable economy as Steffen et al. (2005) point out.

16 Hydrogen is being re-examined in Australian climate conditions as a means of storage of energy generated from renewable sources, this time not in use in vehicles but in huge farms linked to solar power for electrolysis, and a substitute for large scale batteries.