Introducing Sustainability Assessment to Civil Infrastructure Projects & Assets

Dr Gavin Shaw, Research Associate/Fellow Queensland University of Technology Brisbane, Australia.

Professor Arun Kumar, Professor of Infrastructure management Queensland University of Technology Brisbane, Australia.

Adj Professor David Hood, Registered Engineer (NPER & APEC) Civil & Environmental Queensland University of Technology Brisbane, Australia.

Overview

Civil infrastructure plays a key role in supporting and improving our current way of life. However, the assets can have a large impact on the region around them, which are both positive (usually for the purpose they are built) and negative (consequences and unintended effects). There is an increasing trend for society to place an importance on the role of sustainability to ensure that there is a world suitable for future generations. In order to ensure that the world for future generations is in the best possible condition. It is increasingly important to look at integrating sustainability outcomes into the way industry operates, including the infrastructure industry. It is therefore important to undertake sustainability assessment of civil infrastructure projects. By having organisations take on sustainability assessments of civil infrastructure assets both during design and construction, and in operation, the industry can assist to drive outcomes and results that will benefit the environment, society and future generations and also to make their own operations more efficient.

Background

Civil infrastructure can be considered a basic physical structure that supports our way of life and plays a significant role in social and economic outcomes of a region and/or country. Such infrastructure includes roads, railways, bridges, tunnels, ports, airports, distribution grids/networks (such as pipes, poles and wires used in water, sewage, electricity, communications etc), water and/or resource management, preparatory civil works and more.

Infrastructure spending around the globe is massive. The following points gives an idea of how big the industry is through how much is spent on infrastructure in some countries;
  • Australia, the estimated cost of infrastructure maintenance (not including residential buildings) is $30 billion per year [3] [4].
  • Canada has a 7 year plan in which $33 billion will be spent on infrastructure, including so far $15 billion on modernisation projects [1] [2] [4].
  • China has plans to spend $1 trillion over 5 years on infrastructure projects [4].
  • India has a need for $1 trillion of investment over 5 years to improve its infrastructure [4].
  • Mexico invested $141 billion in 2007 and aims to increase this to about $300 billion by the end of 2012 [4] [5].
  • United Kingdom has developed a $320 its billion dollar investment plan for infrastructure [4] [6].
  • United States has a need for $2.2 trillion dollars worth of investment over 5 years into infrastructure to rebuild [4].
Costs associated with ongoing maintenance and operations are also expected to increase over time as new pieces of infrastructure are completed and brought into service and existing infrastructure are expanded to cope with higher levels of demand.

Given the large amounts spent on infrastructure projects, the size and scale of some projects, and the sheer volume of projects being currently undertaken, being planned for, or will be needed in the future (especially in countries undergoing modernisation), civil infrastructure projects for better or worse have a significant impact on the environment and communities, along with their residents.

With an increasing awareness of sustainability and climate change among the community and increasing expectations of being more 'environment–friendly', organisations involved in infrastructure projects (regardless of the stage) have to now take into consideration and face the challenge of also reducing the impacts that infrastructure assets have on the environment and society and hence the idea of infrastructure sustainability has been born.

Key Areas of Sustainability

In the early stages, the primary focus for an organisation involved in an infrastructure project was to meet the needs/terms specified without exceeding money or time limit (eg. on time and on budget). The focus was thus on economic performance and getting good value for money. Over time a shift towards also considering the environment came about (often via government legislation) and many organisations now undertake activities like environmental impact studies & assessments and aim to reduce the impact the infrastructure asset (and activities associated with it) have on the surrounding environment. However, sustainability requires us to consider not just the economic factors and environmental impacts, but also the impacts on society; the communities and people that will be affected, in both good and bad ways, by the infrastructure asset or activities associated with it. This vision of sustainability (economic, environment and social) is often known as Triple Bottom Line (TBL) management and reporting [7]. For true sustainability to be achieved the projects must deliver no net negative impacts across all three bottom lines. We must also consider how projects might even begin to restore natural and social capital destroyed from past development.

Various organisations are at different stages of incorporating sustainability into their business activities. Some have looked at reducing their use of electricity in their offices, others have started to look at how sustainability can be worked into projects and works they undertake for clients (e.g. reducing resource input, offsetting unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or investing in renewable energy, and eliminating waste). Some organisations have gone further and actively made it part of their organisation by introducing into their organisation's vision, values and mission statement.

While it is becoming more important and critical for sustainability to be a part of civil infrastructure projects, it is just as important and critical to ensure that the correct areas are taken into consideration when performing a sustainability assessment for an infrastructure project (or an operating asset). This paper presents six key areas and aspects that organisations involved in civil infrastructure projects need to consider when undertaking sustainability assessment.

Management & Governance

To ensure sustainability is embedded into all processes and that a culture of sustainability is developed to become part of business as usual. In this area, sustainability is about balanced, transparent and accountable decision making with regards to social, environmental and economical concerns for today and the future. Key aspects include:
  1. Management Systems
  2. Procurement & Purchasing
  3. Climate Change Adaptation
Resources

To help minimise consumption of finite resources and improve resource efficiency via full lifecycle thinking. The ultimate goal is to reach a state where finite natural resources are consumed no faster than what the planet can replenish them. The resources of most concern are those that are non-renewable. Also considered in this area is the consideration of opportunities to preserve and enhance 'natural capital'. Key aspects include:
  1. Energy & Carbon
  2. Water
  3. Materials
Emissions, Pollution & Waste

To minimise pollution and degradation, along with reducing emissions into the air, land and water. The ultimate goal is to reach a state where wastes are emitted no faster than the rate at which the planet can absorb them and also support them to aim for zero emissions and zero harm to the environment and society. The aim of this area is to reduce the impact emission such as greenhouse gases have on increasing climate change. Key aspects include:
  1. Discharges (into the Air, Land & Water)
  2. Land (usage, conditioning etc)
  3. Waste
Ecology

Ecology is to improve the functional level and state of ecosystems and to help improve and enhance biodiversity. The ultimate goal is to achieve a net gain in the quality of the ecosystem and improving the ongoing survival of species on the planet.

People & Places

Under people and places, the objective is to enhance the health, quality and well being of people and other living things both now and in the future. The aim is for infrastructure assets to leave a positive legacy for not only the current generation but also future ones.
  1. Community Health, Wellbeing & Safety
  2. Natural & Cultural Heritage
  3. Stakeholder Participation
  4. Urban & Landscape Design
Innovation

Innovation is to support the drive of pioneering initiatives, methods, processes, procedures, technologies etc in sustainability that assist in transforming the market or industry sector towards a more sustainable approach.

By taking into account all of the above key areas when performing sustainability assessment on civil infrastructure an organisation will cover the three core pillars of sustainability.
  • Economy through procurement & purchasing and management systems that help organisations to better oversee the resources (people, equipment, materials etc) needed for the infrastructure project, to track progress and tackle problems before they get out of hand. The economic status of an infrastructure asset is also improved through reductions and better use of materials, resources, energy, waste etc. Economic costs (direct to the project or caused by the project but borne by the community) are also reduced by taking action on people's health, safety and wellbeing.
  • Environment via the consideration of resource usage; such as using recycled or recyclable materials or a reduction in materials needed; reduced potable water usage and greater use of recycled water, reductions in energy intensity & requirements and the consideration of the embedded carbon emissions (such as that required to make and transport a given item) in materials sourced for the infrastructure project. The environment and its wellbeing is also considered when sustainability assessment takes the ecology of the region into account.
  • Society through the consideration of individuals' (both workers involved with the infrastructure asset and local residents) health and quality of life (eg. wellbeing and safety), their cultural way of life and that of the place of residence, that their views and needs are considered and taken on board (via engagement of stakeholders, which includes local communities) and ensuring that where as much as possible the infrastructure asset fits in (visually for example) with its local community. Society also benefits through better use of resources and reductions in pollution and waste.
All three pillars of sustainability benefit from the consideration of climate change by potentially reducing ongoing costs (from infrastructure damage and subsequent repair activities, and the ongoing cost from community disruption), better environmental outcomes, and better connectivity and social improvements for local communities. Innovation also benefits all three pillars as well, by encouraging the discovery of a more economical method to achieve the same outcome, a method that results in reduced impacts on the environment (less energy intensive for example) and reducing impacts on society (more time efficient construction methods, less disruption to the community, etc).

Based on how the key areas benefit the three pillars of sustainability, it can be seen that most of the areas are important to more than one pillar. Therefore, an assessment process that brings together the three pillars at every possible point on a project will assist in achieving far better sustainability outcomes. To achieve this, consideration must be given to all aspects and the infrastructure asset must be considered in full detail.

Sustainability & Infrastructure Phases

It is important to undertake an assessment approach that considers all aspects together (holistically), it is also important to consider and assess sustainability at all phases of an infrastructure assets life. A typical infrastructure asset goes through planning and design, construction, operation (with maintenance) and decommissioning, and/or reuse. For most infrastructure assets the operations phase is the longest and may not have a predetermined end date. An infrastructure asset will have an impact on the environment and society from the moment construction starts to the end of its life (deconstruction, and perhaps beyond if the asset is not removed). Economic impacts occur at all phases of a project, even during its design (for which the owner must pay a fee).

In order to achieve the best sustainability outcomes, sustainability implications need to be considered at every phase and assessed independently. An infrastructure asset can be designed to deliver sustainability outcomes (and the design assessed as having the potential to deliver sustainability outcomes), but it could be constructed in such a manner that has large negative impacts on the environment or society (such as the use of carbon intensive materials, large scale land and community disturbance), or, as often happens, the sustainability initiatives are deleted during construction either through neglect, poor construction methods, or cost cutting. The finished project could also be operated using a process that harms the environment (for example energy intensive procedures, socially disruptive activities).

By assessing an asset and/or the associated project at each phase, an organisation can ensure that it is designed with sustainability in mind, constructed with good practices, and in a manner that is sustainable, sensitive to the environment and society, operated and maintained in a manner that ensures sustainability outcomes, and finally decommissioned in a manner to ensure that as the asset is reused, recycled where possible, and that land is restored, and that decommissioning activities minimise any harm they do. Failure to assess and monitor assets and projects during construction and later operations could easily result in an asset that was designed to meet sustainability outcomes, but then was constructed in a manner where no concern was given to the environment or society and thus undermine the design initiatives, and reduce the intended benefits.

Conclusion

The infrastructure industry plays a massive role in today's world and helps support our way of life. Infrastructure assets can easily have big impacts, both negative and positive, on the world around them, both the natural environment and communities. Over the years, sustainability has become increasingly more important to individuals, organisations, communities and governments. Given the scale and impact of the infrastructure industry and the physical assets involved it should not be a surprise that there is a real need for sustainability to become part of the way the industry operates. In order to achieve real sustainability in the area of civil infrastructure projects and assets, it is necessary to perform sustainability assessment with associated measures, metrics and indicators, across all of the key areas and at all phases of a project's or asset's life.

Reference

  • Canada's Economic Action Plan: A Sixth Report to Canadians – September 2010.
  • Canada's Economic Action Plan: A Seventh Report to Canadians – January 2011.
  • Cooperative Research Centre for Infrastructure and Engineering Asset Management (CIEAM).
  • Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority, Urban Land Institute, 2011.
  • National Infrastructure Program 2007-2012, Mexico.
  • Strategy for national infrastructure, HM Treasury & Infrastructure UK, United Kingdom, 2010.
  • Sustainability: A Guide to Triple Bottom Line Reporting, Group of 100, Melbourne, Australia, 2003.
  • AGIC Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme.
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