Why access to land is crucial to foster investments in sustainable infrastructure

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Aerial view of agricultural farm fields with solar photovoltaic panels for producing clean energy Creating well-functioning systems to secure land access can empower needed climate-smart investments by governments and the private sector. © Shutterstock

Back in 2010, India launched its National Solar Mission, which set the goal of establishing India as a global leader in solar energy and a solution to bring electricity to hundreds of millions of people.

Looking back, India had the sun on its side, and the political will to get this done. The other big hurdle was access to land, solar parks require a lot of space. That box got checked too, and by 2021 99.6% of India’s population had gained electricity access.

Vast tracts of land are needed for the development and financing of climate-smart infrastructure

India’s conundrum was representative of a global issue. Access to land is a gatekeeping challenge that stands in the way of many renewable energy investments at a time when mitigating and adapting to climate change is becoming increasingly urgent, especially in developing countries. The cost of climate change adaptation in developing countries comes with a price tag as high as $390 billion this decade—way above the current investment range of $20­–25 billion per year. Public funds won’t be able to cover the gap alone and there is a need to significantly ramp up private financing for climate adaptation.

When systems to secure access to land function well, both governments and the private sector are more empowered to invest in renewable energy, transit‐oriented development, and corridor‐based infrastructure investments more broadly.

Land availability plays a significant role in determining the feasibility and viability of infrastructure projects, and land with the right characteristics ensures the optimal performance of climate-resilient infrastructure. Collaboration and partnerships between the private sector, government agencies, and local communities enable stakeholders to work together to identify suitable land for infrastructure development, address land tenure issues, and ensure the participation of local communities in decision making processes through participatory land registration programs.

To enable infrastructure development, it’s vital to identify who owns the land and if there are any other property rights over it, such as occupancy, tenancy, and use rights. If land records can’t be relied upon, then the systematic registration of land and property rights in the area may have to be incorporated into the project before construction can begin. Infrastructure investments often resort to compulsory acquisition to prevent a situation in which a small number of owners can block a project by refusing to sell. This process can take a long time and is often complicated by title disputes or litigation about compensation values. Land ownership or long-term lease agreements provide security to lenders and investors, making it easier to secure financing for infrastructure projects. It allows governments and investors to leverage the value of the land as collateral and attract investment capital.

Land use planning enables the private sector to align infrastructure projects with sustainable and mixed-use practices, minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing the benefits of climate mitigation and adaptation. Countries commonly underutilize public lands and buildings, despite the fact that these are some of their most valuable assets. Investing in better access to state and public lands for development has enormous potential for enabling, financing, and locating infrastructure investments.

According to the 2023 Land Gap Report, governments have pledged 1 billion hectares of land (equivalent to the land area of the entire United States) for carbon removal, including conserving high carbon-value areas to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reforestation, and bioenergy investments.

Barren-land-turned solar park in the heart of India

Returning to the challenge India was facing, an important part of the solution to the “land problem” was clustering solar production together. This helped solar producers benefit from shared infrastructure and enable the government to take advantage of large areas of land it already owned.

One site for solar production was chosen in Madhya Pradesh, India. There, the IFC-supported Rewa Ultra-Mega Solar project was installed on a plateau comprised of scrub or barren rocky land with limited potential for agriculture, where almost 80 percent of the 1,500 hectares of land belonged to the government. This was important as India requires projects to obtain consent of 70 percent of landowners before the project can proceed. The last 20 percent of land was purchased from private landowners under the state government’s “policy of mutual consent,” at double the guideline rate laid down in the policy. Only roughly 68 hectares of land was acquired from private landowners through negotiations. 

Once the entire land parcel was held by the project company tenders were invited, and in 2020 the plant became fully operational producing 750 MW of solar energy and is now one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) projects. 

The way forward: encouraging more progress

The Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) has been funding work in regions where limited access to land is a barrier to infrastructure development, from the development of PPP frameworks to the monetization of public land. PPIAF recently helped prepare the World Bank Guidance Note on Access to Land in South Asia to address issues such as access to land for public asset monetization, transit-oriented development, and renewable energy investments.

The guidance note suggests solutions, such as developing government land management systems (GLMS) to provide a comprehensive record and mapping of all government lands and improve land availability with clean titles. By providing certainty about land and property rights, GLMS can make land available for affordable housing programs. They also allow the leveraging of public asset values for PPPs in urban development.

Overall, good quality land administration and policies—informed by accurate land use rights, boundaries information, and spatial planning, as well as feasible solutions for planning and permitting, are needed for effective land management. Assembling sizable land for climate actions requires comprehensive records, geospatial data, and restrictions related to land use. Systems should be put in place to protect property rights for owner, lessor, and user regardless of their ethnicity, gender, disability, religious affiliation, primary language, sexual orientation, or age.

However, a land register is only as good as the quality of the data it contains, and the reality is that land administrations are commonly in need of modernization so that the state of land records and mapping become a lesser source of uncertainty and risk.

Stay tuned for the upcoming Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII) Partnership-funded Global Guide for Access to Land for Climate Action and Infrastructure available soon on the QII website.


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Ludovic Delplanque

Senior Infrastructure Specialist

Mika-Petteri Torhonen

Lead Land Administration Specialist

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