Greening infrastructure

Climate risk has been brought to the forefront of public conscience over recent years as the consequences of manmade climate change become more apparent. AECOM’s Fergus Hayes, Environment Director for Ireland and Robert Spencer, Head of Sustainable Development, discuss how the infrastructure sector across the island of Ireland can help tackle our climate crisis with Helen Hughes, Director of Professional Services at Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

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There is a growing expectation for businesses to do their part in adopting sustainable approaches and reduce carbon footprints. Failure to do so can not only result in financial consequences, but also reputational damage. Within the infrastructure sector, these risks are a game of catch-up. The industry must not only overcome their current sustainability challenges, but also be part of the solution for the future.

Step-change in behaviour to meet climate change targets

Industry stakeholders are feeling the importance to collaborate in an environment defined by common goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), progressive attitudes and shared knowledge. Only then will the industry play a pivotal role in transforming the island from idle partner to global leader in tackling the climate crisis.    

The UK became the first major economy to adopt a binding commitment to achieve Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  An ambitious target, but one that other EU countries, including the Republic of Ireland (ROI), will almost certainly have to follow. Currently, ROI is evaluated against the EU’s 2020 targets, which includes a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels1, but it’s lagging and certain to miss these targets.

The 2019 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) ranks ROI 48th out of the 60 countries, and whilst the UK is ranked 8th, the UK Climate Change Committee assessed that Northern Ireland requires at least a 35% reduction in emissions against 1990 levels by 2030.

The most recent Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) projections of greenhouse gas emissions show that the region is unlikely to achieve this reduction.

It is clear; greater climate mitigation efforts are needed to move the island’s sustainability agenda forward.

35%

Ireland requires at least a 35% reduction in emissions against 1990 levels by 2030

 

Almost two-thirds of the island’s construction professionals (65%) state that climate change considerations are either extremely or very important to shaping their future business model.

Climate change mitigation is high on the priority list

Reversing the island’s emissions trajectory will rely heavily on major infrastructure adjustments, therefore the industry needs to lead the charge on climate change mitigation to bring the sustainability agenda to the forefront of project planning, design and delivery. And it appears that the desired sentiment within the industry is already present - almost two-thirds of the island’s construction professionals (65%) state that climate change considerations are either extremely or very important to shaping their future business model.

Helen Hughes details the steps Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), is taking to move its agenda forward: ‘we have a clear and concise corporate strategy for reducing emissions as an organisation. Furthermore, we are mainstreaming carbon mitigation programmes across all the projects we deliver.’  It appears acknowledgement of the issues within the industry is evident, the challenge then, is how to shift this awareness into action.

AECOM suggests three key approaches to help get the industry on track:

 

1/ Industry-wide collaboration is key

Industry-wide collaboration is key to ensure good intentions translate into positive actions.  Successful climate mitigation relies upon an organised, consistent approach where commonly agreed targets are achieved by bringing together different stakeholders with different perspectives, alongside knowledge and skills transfers between partners.

Climate change and diminishing resource availability are driving major infrastructure organisations to seek greater resilience and efficiencies with planning, development and delivery of major programmes across the UK and Ireland. With this in mind, AECOM founded the Major Infrastructure–Resources Optimisation Group (MI-ROG) in 2013 as a forum for the UK’s infrastructure operators to collaborate across the circular economy theme and to meet the challenge of delivering major infrastructure in a constrained economy.

The first forum of its kind in the infrastructure sector, MI-ROG has inspired and facilitated workflows on asset life cycle, carbon performance, circular economy planning, critical materials availability, materials exchange and sustainable procurement and supply chains.

The group benchmarks approaches, shares best practice and collaborates across projects, seeking greater resilience and efficiencies with planning, development and delivery of major programmes. The programme has been a huge success, showcasing how the synergies and perspectives gained through collaboration can result in effective and frictionless effort to combat the climate crisis. So, what can be learnt from the organisation’s success?

AECOM founded the Major Infrastructure–Resources Optimisation Group (MI-ROG) in 2013 as a forum for the UK’s infrastructure operators to collaborate across the circular economy theme and to meet the challenge of delivering major infrastructure in a constrained economy.

 

2/ Meeting actionable, clear and measurable targets

While many businesses currently have sustainability and environmental strategies in place, it is critical that these are built with the endeavour of meeting uniform and measurable targets. Helen Hughes is clear in citing that a lack of clarity on targets can result in a barrier to forming a sustainable solution, ‘Fundamentally, we think that the UN Sustainability goals should really form part of our project appraisal, so that they become embedded into the process when we are selecting projects.’

The number of stakeholders within each infrastructure project can be substantial, and much like health and safety practices, there is a need to ensure standardisation to avoid unintended negative consequences. Helen encapsulates this point eloquently ‘we need everybody to be on the same page when considering sustainable outcomes. Currently there is a large variation in understanding of what ‘operational sustainably’ means. As an industry we must reach a common understanding’. Upon achieving an industry consensus on what the sustainability objectives should be, the next step becomes measuring success or failure in meeting them.

TII's approach is forward-thinking by making the sustainability agenda a tangible measure within the organisation and amongst their partners. And our survey results show that TII’s approach is not atypical of the wider industry. Our research outlines that construction professionals across the island of Ireland are continuing to call for best proactive guidance and a clear legal framework on how to embed recycle and reuse within their business.

 

The number of stakeholders within each infrastructure project can be substantial, and much like health and safety practices, there is a need to ensure standardisation to avoid unintended negative consequences.

3/ From obstacle to opportunity

Once all stakeholders form a multilateral approach, attitudes within the industry need to move beyond short-term cost bearing barriers to project success, to an agenda that embeds a sustainable approach into the long-term planning of all project delivery.

Unfortunately, the current perception within the industry is one of short-termism. A failure to grasp the potential risks of climate change is unlikely to drive the rapid change required by the industry to improve on performance. This is despite there already being examples showcasing the potential financial benefits of embracing sustainability as a business objective.

Here, Hughes outlines the importance of directly incentivising organisations to become more sustainable, ‘I think we can do better when looking at our supply chain, particularly when we are specifying and procuring projects, that we reward contractors that use products and have more sustainable practices’. It is direct intervention that may be necessary to force a step change in approach from the Irish construction industry, as waiting for the attitudinal change to occur organically may take precious time that the island can ill afford.

That said, AECOM is already working with a number of forward-thinking clients to focus on the positive benefits of perceiving sustainability as an opportunity that can innovate, improve best practice as well as reduce project costs, be that through reducing costs spent on raw materials or through repurposing ‘waste’ products. This includes our work with Highways England on developing and implementing its Circular Economy Strategy and delivering designing-out waste workshops for multiple Network Rail projects.

Circular approach to combat waste

 

Helen Hughes outlines TII’s progression in using the ‘circular’ approach to combat waste, “Management guidelines that focus on minimising the waste generation form part of the planning at an early stage. We are trying to minimise both the mass haul in the movement and transport of materials for the project and reducing the amount that must be exported off site. The aim of the project should be to build something that is self contained and not creating large amounts of waste, and that has to factored into the design.” 

27%

of our survey respondents see ‘circular economy’ as extremely important to the way their organisation uses resources.

This is supported by the wider construction profession with 27% of our survey respondents seeing ‘circular economy’ as extremely important to the way their organisation uses resources.

From project delivery to finding macro-solutions

This sustainable model has begun to influence behaviour outside of project delivery, as the role of infrastructure in greening the entire island becomes increasingly acknowledged. The wider agenda focuses on how infrastructure can impact the societal and economic behaviours that result in increased emissions.

The power of a change in perspective and capability is best illustrated when considering the island’s dispersed population. This was once seen as a major barrier to reducing emissions due to the number of journeys undertaken by private vehicles. However, Hughes demonstrates how this characteristic is now being capitalised upon, ‘the focus on major heavy rail networks is limited: the focus instead is on developing the interurban connections in rural and regional areas to their respective city centres.’ Hughes goes further outlining the ambition to reduce transport emissions as fewer long individual journeys being necessary; ‘We really want to focus on reducing demand on the network and that is partly about land use planning facilitating compact growth in city centres and minimising the need for travel so that people live and work close enough or have public transport options to get between work and where they live.’

Sustainability is at the heart of this approach. Hughes outlines just how far the ambition extends, ‘It is very much trying to change behaviour, so people only travel when they need to, it’s about demand management or getting efficient use of the network. Even when you have 100% electric vehicles on the road there remains a carbon impact, you have to look at the whole life-cycle’. This notion underpins how far the circular economy ethos is being relayed.

Working for numerous infrastructure clients across the industry, from roads, rail and aviation to water and power, AECOM is not only helping to educate on sustainable approaches but is seeing a step change in client attitudes in seeking tailored solutions to tackle their sustainable agenda in a more targeted and efficient manner.

Undoubtedly the desired future for the island’s infrastructure is local, sustainable and green. And the ambition to generate dramatic change is clear - the Irish government’s 2040 plans outline 26 distinct national programmes and 11 investment projects targeting climate change2 . With the success of programmes such as MIROG to build targeting, it is important to note how crucial stakeholder collaboration has become. Forming strong relationships built on shared goals, incentives and knowledge is the key to unlocking the island's green potential and catapult it from a region lagging behind its neighbours to one leading the charge.

It is very much trying to change behaviour, so people only travel when they need to, it’s about demand management or getting efficient use of the network. Even when you have 100% electric vehicles on the road there remains a carbon impact, you have to look at the whole life-cycle. HELEN HUGHES Director of Professional Services at Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

Custom Carbon Assessment Tool

TII

With EU regulation changes on climate change impact, Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) needed a way to calculate and assess the carbon emissions associated with its road and light rail projects as part of their Environmental Impact Assessments.

AECOM developed a custom carbon assessment tool to calculate and analyse the carbon emissions associated with TII’s road and light rail projects. Following a workshop with TII staff and suppliers who would be the eventual end users, AECOM designed a tool, taking into account the specific Irish context that current ‘off the shelf’ tools lacked, such as the effect of carbon loss from peat removal - a more significant issue in the geography of the island of Ireland.

The tool was able to assess the main sources of carbon emissions throughout the lifecycle of a project, from high level early design, to construction, use and maintenance, and end of life to identify emissions hotspots and understand where carbon savings can be made.

The tool also allows users to model carbon impacts of different design options for varying levels of design information and enable understanding of relative carbon impacts to influence decision making and reduce carbon emissions of new infrastructure developments.