China's Three Gorges Dam

The pursuit of privately financed mega-infrastructure projects could have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences, according to an open letter sent to the heads of the G20 nations by a group of scientists and environmentalists.

The letter, from Foundation Earth, quotes the work of Professor Bent Flyvbjerg from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, which states that over the past 70 years, 90 per cent of infrastructure projects have experienced cost overruns, delays and benefit shortfalls.

“Trillions of dollars spent in pursuit of typical mega-projects in the energy, transportation, agriculture, and water sectors could put in place infrastructure that eliminates wildlife habitat, destroys fisheries, undermines vital ecosystems and further destabilises the Earth’s climate. This process is beset with other problems like corruption, cost overruns, fiscal accountability and human rights abuses,” the open letter states.

Professor Flyvbjerg has written a paper, Survival of the unfittest: why the worst infrastructure gets built – and what we can do about it, detailing a new model for infrastructure development that he says would halt the 90 per cent failure rate.

The letter’s authors have recommended that mega-infrastructure projects be replaced by this model of “smaller-scale, ecologically smarter and more flexible” projects.

An independent body has also been suggested that would compare proposed infrastructure projects to the historical record of project types of the same size on cost estimates, completion dates and benefit projections. Any proposal falling outside this range would be rejected.

“I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments and recommendations of the Foundation Earth letter,’ Professor Flyvbjerg said. “As they have argued, infrastructure mega-projects are a relic of governmental grandiosity and developer hubris that historically have never delivered the benefits they promised. My research has revealed no evidence that either the commissioners or developers of these large-scale projects have learnt from the mistakes of the past – and yet the G20 unaccountably seems set on a path of replication and intensification. I hope that the recipients of this letter have the courage to make the bold changes recommended, for the good of mankind and the planet.”

  • See the full letter here