Insight: Underground Resources for a Sustainable Global Future

Our world has changed in many ways, over the past decade in particular. The drivers for change includes our evolving comprehension of the finiteness of the carrying capacity of the earth.
Insight: Underground Resources for a Sustainable Global Future
UKCRIC Communications, Marketing and Events Manager (UCL)

Image credit: Jessi Pena


Author: Professor Priscilla P. Nelson, Colorado School of Mines

Our world has changed in many ways, over the past decade in particular.  The drivers for change includes our evolving comprehension of the finiteness of the carrying capacity of the earth.  The growing population has led to urban densification and expansion, and to challenges in human and industrial waste management, disease control, ecology and habitat issues, and behavioral changes and social tensions related to food and water availability, social justice and equity.  The fragility of the global supply chain and the realization of the impacts of climate change are driving the energy transition and the need for alternative sources of energy which will require utilization of critical metals and minerals.

What is the role of the underground as an earth resource in addressing these world changes?  The world needs those involved in infrastructure planning, design, construction and operation to lead in the path towards a sustainable global future. 

Infrastructure demands will only grow in the future. The parameters and priorities for planning and decisions are changing and will continue to change. If underground space is to be appropriately considered in responding to demands for service – the gaps of data, knowledge, tools, governance, technology, workforce, and policy all need to be addressed so that underground infrastructure can make the contributions to society that are needed and warranted.   We need to make compelling cases for putting infrastructure underground, and provide the advances in technology, methods, and legal and contractual frameworks that will reduce the costs, and yield a more sustainable, accessible, equitable, and resilient integrated infrastructure systems.

Doughnut Economics

Raworth (2017) introduced the concept of Doughnut Economics that models the doughnut as the place where people live on the surface of the earth, schematically illustrated in Figure 1.  The Doughnut is bounded by an internal hole that bounds the safe zone (the social foundation) where people have access to all human needs and rights (e.g., life’s essentials, such as food, water, healthcare and political freedom of expression); in the hole itself, human needs and rights are not accessible.  The concept is to have people NOT fall into the hole, and no one is harmed.  The external boundary of the donut is the planetary boundary (the ecological ceiling) where the concern is for harming the planet and the planetary systems. In Figure 1, the red planetary boundaries can be defined – we know that because we have already over-shot them); the grey and white boundaries are not yet quantified.

Paraskevopoulou et al. (2019) used models of a circular economy and a Doughnut Economy and identified principles that should be embedded to achieve resilience and sustainability during construction and operation of underground urban infrastructure.  To achieve sustainability and resilience, they note that planning and organization of the underground development is required “not only in terms of spatial organization or overcoming the engineering challenges, but also in regards to the establishments of policies, regulations and social factors consideration.”

Another example of the application of this Doughnut thinking comes from Amsterdam.  Immediately after the start of the pandemic, the city announced its own strategy for recovering from that crisis, and all crises.  By embracing the Doughnut Economy, the model was used to inform city wide strategies and developments to provide a good quality of life for all without putting additional pressure on the planet.  Other cities are following this path.


Figure 1 The Doughnut Economics Model (Raworth, 2017)

(image developed by Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health)


Doughnut Economics implies that success in life and work in the dough must have two mandates. The design must be regenerative (designing for reuse) and distributive design (providing equitable access and sharing).  How does this Doughnut concept tie into urban and underground infrastructure? How can infrastructure planning, construction and operation honor the constraints of the Doughnut?  How should we be thinking about underground infrastructure to be regenerative and distributive, with the value of the infrastructure investment distributed to everybody, not just to the rich and famous.  Concepts such as shared enterprise, ownership, ethical supply chain, community empowerment and open-source design must be considered.

The urban underground infrastructure industry and operators do not bear the sole responsibility for addressing the climate change and Doughnut Economics challenge, but the industry does need to ensure that opportunities to contribute meaningfully to aversion of the crisis are capitalized on. This means minimizing all future carbon emissions. This could imply that we do not build any more infrastructure or maintain existing assets. However, that is not a responsive solution since infrastructure is the lifeblood of society, with the social value of infrastructure being increasingly included in decision making to enable improvements in, or at least sustaining the level of, quality of life.

Approaches to Urban Solutions, Sustainability and Resilience

The United Nations (UN) established the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to transform our world by targeting achievement, or at least strong advances, to a sustainable planet by 2030. In the USA, The American Society of Civil Engineers has addressed the needs for future infrastructure as a major focus, producing a variety of reports focused on infrastructure and equity, social justice, and climate change. Historical infrastructure placements have created injustices to communities of color and communities put at economic disadvantages. The European Union has committed to ensuring inclusive growth, with equality and non-discrimination ensured in its policies (European Commission, 2023).  In China, Cui et al. (2022) report on approaches to incorporate social equity in decisions and designs for solving urbanization problems, and Rodenbiker (2022) reports on social justice and justice-oriented planning in China’s cities.

The Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) framework provides guidance that targets investors, banks, insurers, governments, and customers to assess risks. ESG issues are generally aligned with SDG goals, as is indicated in Figure 2.  Corporate offices are expected to respond to ESG mandates by measuring and disclosing how non-financial risks and opportunities related to the planet and its people are managed.


Figure 2 Schematic of ESG Targets Linkages to the UN SDGs


What does ESG mean for civil infrastructure?  Concepts involved in the implementation of ESG in infrastructure planning and construction follow:

E:  ESG in public infrastructure emphasizes environmentally sustainable practices, such as constructing and operating infrastructure with a reduced environmental footprint, utilizing renewable energy sources, and implementing waste reduction and recycling programs.  ESG encourages the incorporation of climate change considerations into infrastructure planning and development, ensuring that projects are resilient to climate-related challenges like extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

S:  ESG in public infrastructure emphasizes engagement with and responding to the needs and concerns of the communities impacted by infrastructure projects. This means equitable distribution of benefits and opportunities across diverse demographic groups, addressing issues like access to services and economic opportunities.  Ensuring the health and safety of the public during the construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure are critical aspects of ESG.

G:  ESG promotes transparent decision-making processes and the active involvement of stakeholders in governance. There are both formal and informal systems of governance, and both exert a powerful control over the success of a system change. Formal governance includes legislation, regulation, codes and standards, taxation and incentives, and inclusion of fair labor and fair contracting practices.  Public infrastructure projects should be developed and managed with clear accountability structures, community engagement, ethical practices, and financial transparency.  Adherence to laws and regulations concerning public infrastructure, along with ensuring compliance with international standards and best practices, is a key aspect of governance within the ESG framework.

It should be clear that the underground construction industry must work ensure that the underground is fully considered in ESG-driven decisions regarding future investments in existing infrastructure or new projects.  This is made very clear in the QII (Quality Infrastructure Investment) Principles, developed by the G-20 with the goal that countries pursue infrastructure investments that maximize the economic, social, environmental, and development impact of infrastructure—the foundation for achieving sustainable, resilient, and inclusive growth.  The Principles call for owners, constructors, designers, financiers to achieve the following:

  1. Maximizing the positive impact of infrastructure to achieve sustainable growth and development
  2. Raising economic efficiency in view of life-cycle cost
  3. Integrating environmental considerations in infrastructure
  4. Building resilience against natural disasters
  5. Integrating social considerations in infrastructure investment
  6. Strengthening infrastructure governance

ESG reporting is becoming more important, and the underground construction industry must do the work that will ensure that the underground is fully considered in decisions regarding future investments in existing infrastructure or new projects.

Contracting and Finance for Infrastructure

What does ESG Imply for underground resources and infrastructure financing?  The role of infrastructure as a catalyst for sustainable growth and as an enabler of the energy transition is increasingly clear.  But the global infrastructure financing gap – the difference between infrastructure needs and investment – is anticipated to reach US$15 trillion by 2040. This gap cannot be reconciled by public funding alone.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has produced a white paper (WEF, 2024) acknowledging this, and that public-private partnerships (PPPs) are needed to address project challenges that no one party can tackle alone.  This includes developing new financing and insurance mechanisms to de-risk resilience, and setting up the PPP organization to promote collaborations.

An interesting McKinsey web article (McKinsey, 2024) notes that: “Rapid technology advances, growing stakeholder complexities, and evolving societal and environmental issues are just some of the factors reshaping the infrastructure industry. With traditional approaches now outdated, infrastructure CEOs have to adapt—and fast. What made infrastructure CEOs successful in the past will no longer suffice: communication skills outweigh construction skills, public credibility is more important than ever, and ambition must be balanced with strategy.”  They also note the increased scrutiny of the public and media, and that the increased flow of private capital has led to bigger and more complicated projects that can only be accomplished by joint ventures (JVs) and other contracting mechanisms.

Once the likely immediate and future benefits, and any risks associated with their delivery, have been established, alternative business models can be considered. Governments have long been the traditional drivers of social and economic development in our communities — particularly through infrastructure and construction - but ESG is now driving innovation and environmental sustainability in infrastructure system design, construction and operation. Private sector infrastructure players (including private finance) are also connecting into this movement — and alternative contracting methods like Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT), Alliancing and PPPs are becoming the norms.  These approaches encourage longer-term thinking at the outset of projects — helping to build stronger business cases and strategies — all linked to the desired ESG impacts a project can have on its communities.

Concluding thoughts

The future will bring great innovation in the way infrastructure and its associated land uses are planned, the objective being to deliver social, equity and economic impacts through innovative construction and sustainable and just land use.  The underground construction industry needs to equip decisions makers with the tools needed to value the costs and benefits associated with existing and new buried infrastructure that properly takes account of financial resources, carbon resources and social value across longer time scales and over as wide as possible system boundaries.

While the construction and maintenance of buried urban infrastructure is associated with significant carbon emissions there is also the potential to use that infrastructure to help reduce carbon emissions in other sectors as long as we take a broad enough and long enough view of the both the costs and the benefits and we fully account for social value outside of any individual projects.  The more value we take from infrastructure, the more important the system resilience becomes, and developing the methods needed to value that resilience and balance carbon costs and benefits will be only more important in the future.



Cui, X. et al.  2022.  “Construction and optimization of ecological security patterns based on social equity perspective: A case study in Wuhan, China.”  Ecological Indicators. 136.

European Commission.  2023.  “How the EU delivers on a social Europe that is fair, inclusive and full of opportunity.”  retrieved February 16, 2024.

McKinsey.  2024. “The Changing Role of the infrastructure CEO.” retrieved February 16, 2024.

Paraskevopoulou, C., A. Cornaro, H. Admiraal and A. Paraskevopoulou.  2019.  “Underground space and urban sustainability:  An integrated approach to the city of the future.”  Proceedings of the International Conference on Changing Cities IV: Spatial, Design, Landscape & Socio-economic Dimensions. ISBN 978-960-99226-9-2

Raworth, K. 2017 Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing. 320 p.

Rodenbiker, J.  2022.  “Social justice in China’s cities:  Urban-rural restructuring and justice-oriented planning.”  Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 2022, Vol. 1(1–2) 184 –198.  DOI: 10.1177/27541223221111799  

United Nations. 2015.  Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

United Nations. 2023.  “The Sustainable Development Goals Report:  Special Edition - Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet.”