Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require new thinking about how we plan for energy, mining, and infrastructure development.

The traditional approach of project-by-project planning is falling short. It too often misses the big picture – how a region may be affected by the cumulative development of multiple projects.

Consider this. If you were building a new home, you’d work with an architect to develop a blueprint. This would help ensure that your future home meets your family’s multiple needs. You would not plan one room and build it, and then later plan another room and build it, and so on.

But this is often how development takes place in a region. Each new project gets planned at a site-level, without the benefit of a regional blueprint. As a result, opportunities may be missed for integrated development, like sharing infrastructure among projects. Likewise, the cumulative effects of multiple projects may not be addressed, such as watershed impacts that collectively affect water security for communities.

Three changes we need to make

Blueprints for a Greener Footprint – Sustainable Development at a Landscape Scale, a paper recently released by the World Economic Forum, The Nature Conservancy, and RESOLVE, makes the case for transforming development planning in three ways. It calls for development planning to be conducted:

1. At a landscape scale. Landscape-scale planning is an approach for harmonizing multiple goals within the same geographic area, which may be defined by biological, watershed or jurisdictional boundaries. This helps clarify critical values, potential cumulative impacts of multiple projects, and the options for more integrated development.

2. In advance of major project decisions. This turns what is often a reactive approach to project-level environmental and social impacts into a pro-active process for assessing opportunities and risks across multiple development projects within a landscape.

3. For a more comprehensive set of goals. This supports an understanding of tradeoffs across multiple objectives, the best pathways for development, and the potential contribution to SDGs.

5,000 years of planning

Humans have been planning their development - particularly their cities - since the Bronze Age, with evidence of planned development from civilizations including Minoan, Mesopotamian and ancient Egypt. That’s 5,000 years of experience, and yet it appears we still have much to learn.

Today, science tells us that planning at the landscape-scale planning (LSP) offers many benefits beyond what can be achieved through project-level planning alone.

  • It promotes comprehensive risk management and offers greater predictability and transparency to businesses and communities. This can reduce social conflicts, project delays, and costs. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management adopted a “solar energy zones” approach for the southwestern U.S. that is accelerating solar development while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts. This approach has already reduced the project permitting time by more than half.
  • It helps in identifying new development options for shared facilities among two or more operators, or broader opportunities for integrated development corridors. For example, two Canada-based mining companies in northern Chile’s Atacama region have created a joint venture to combine their assets across two potential mining projects into a single $3.5 billion project. This will significantly reduce the environmental footprint and reduce capital costs to less than half the cost of developing the projects separately.
  • It informs strategies for long-term landscape resilience, such as ensuring functional watersheds for clean drinking water, connected habitat for species, and buffers against climate effects. For example, the government of Mongolia has supported LSP for all regions of the country, taking into account biological resources, ecosystem services, climate change considerations, and projected development.

Despite all these advantages, planning at a landscape scale is not common practice.

This needs to change. Fortunately, technological advances are rapidly increasing our power to execute more integrated planning at a reasonable speed and cost.

But it will also take collective leadership from government, industry, development agencies, and financial institutions to break down planning silos, support public-private initiatives, and increase resources for landscape-scale planning. To achieve the SDGs, we will need blueprints for a greener footprint.