Coastal gray infrastructure – roads, bridges, buildings, ports, and everything else we build along coastlines – is clearly critical for keeping our society functioning, and we invest significantly in it. Coastal green infrastructure, such as wetlands and reefs, is critical to us, too, as it provides many services and benefits including coastal defense.
But just how much money do we ‘allocate’ to gray and green infrastructure? Like any good investor, we should occasionally assess our portfolio and think about our allocations.
My colleague, Mike Beck, and I sought to run a quick check-up on our coastal portfolio. In brief, here’s what we found: we spend nearly 30 times more on (re)building coastal gray infrastructure around the world than we do on coastal conservation (green infrastructure).
How did we arrive at these numbers?
We evaluated spending breakdowns along coastlines by crunching the numbers from several global datasets. First, we looked at a really useful new database that tracks a vast number of aid projects from many of the biggest public and private donors.
From 2004 to 2013, at least $198 billion in international aid funds (those coming from agencies like the World Bank and from large donor countries such as China and Japan) were devoted to industry, construction, transportation, and energy projects in developing island nations and coastal countries.
Most of us know that a huge amount of coastal infrastructure is damaged or destroyed in coastal storms, but numbers can be hard to come by.
What are the costs of storms like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and Hurricane Sandy in the Northeastern US?
We wanted to put a number, even if a rough one, on these financial losses. We searched international aid data again, this time looking for projects that involved humanitarian aid and reconstruction after coastal storms in developing countries. We found that about $3.5 billion was allocated for such projects during that same decade (2004-2013).
In wealthier countries, insurance companies often cover the losses of property and investments from storms. MunichRe, the world’s largest global reinsurance company, identifies that more than $214 billion was paid out by re-insurers overall to recover coastal damages from the largest hurricanes, typhoons, and floods in this time period.
We estimate, then, that at least $198 billion was invested in building coastal infrastructure, while $214 billion was paid out privately to recover coastal infrastructure from damages. Furthermore, this figure does not include the public funds that governments spend on re-building after storms, such as the $300 billion of uninsured losses from global storms from 2004-2013 and the $120 billion the US government paid out after Hurricane Katrina.
To assess financial allocation toward coastal green infrastructure, we looked at two main sources of funding. First, we took one more look at the international aid data and found that aid spending on conservation and restoration – these are funds that come from agencies like the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank – amounted to less than $1 billion; this clearly pales in comparison to aid for coastal gray infrastructure in the same timeframe.
We also analyzed two sources of green infrastructure funding in the United States: coastal conservation- and restoration-related spending by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and voter-approved ballot measures for conservation projects.
These sources serve as a reasonable estimator of the scale of funding from public agencies for these purposes, although we also note that there are other very large agencies in the world that we were unable to account for (e.g., the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia and the European Commission).
We found that within the U.S., NOAA spent $7 billion on conservation and restoration, and $5 billion were approved in conservation bonds and voter-approved ballot measures. Thus, roughly $12 billion were spent on coastal conservation and green infrastructure in the U.S. during the decade we analyzed.
What if we were to spend some of that infrastructure money differently: to build long-term coastal resilience?
Imagine if we invested just one tenth of the infrastructure funds on conservation and restoration. We could triple our coastal conservation investment – and that’s just with the infrastructure money that we’ve identified here.
Importantly, we could rebuild those coastal ecosystems in ways that would help protect our coasts and people too; in fact, we increasingly know how to do this. Healthy coastal ecosystems including mangroves, coral reefs, and salt marshes are some of the best defenses we have against storms that already cause damage and that are predicted to become more frequent and severe with climate change.
Channeling a bit more coastal funding toward protecting ecosystems might actually save money in the long run, by preventing expensive damage to our investments. Indeed, the insurance industry finds that investments in coastal infrastructure can be particularly cost effective for climate adaptation and risk reduction.
Without doubt, more work remains to be done before we fully understand our coastal portfolio. Nevertheless, even a small shift in the funding allocation toward ecosystem protection would likely lead to big decreases in future losses from coastal storms. Using coastal environmental funds strategically – for example, restoring mangrove or reef habitats located near densely populated areas – could prevent billions of dollars worth of damage, and at the same time, protect the lives and livelihoods of coastal residents.
The world doesn’t offer many true win-win solutions, but carefully planned restoration of coastal habitats is pretty close to one, and it’s worth taking advantage of.