Sydney clouded in smoke

By Suzanne Toumbourou, Executive Director, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council

Planning infrastructure is all about anticipating the future. How many people will be living in that new part of town 50 years from now? Where will they work, now that the local jobs are shifting from manufacturing to software development? How will they get there?

Anticipating the future is hard because some changes are easy to spot, while others come out of the blue. The current COVID-19 crisis was not something any of us expected just a few weeks ago, and it’s going to sorely test our health, freight, communications and education infrastructure.

The good news is that there are some future challenges we can see coming, giving us time to prepare for them.

Trouble is, some people keep doing things the old way without clocking the changes that we know are coming. The UK’s Heathrow Airport expansion, for example, has been on the cards for a long time. But in February, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the expansion couldn’t take place. 

The reason? Climate change. The plans failed to take the UK’s emissions commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement into account.

Every infrastructure professional knows there are seemingly endless considerations, from health and safety to heritage surveys, that stand between the bright idea for a project and its final delivery. 

But the fact is that the expectations for our infrastructure are changing, and the way we commission and deliver it is going to have to change too.

All of this is for an excellent cause: our future and that of our kids. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it clear that we need to plan our infrastructure to cope with disasters. 

Anyone who lived through Australia’s recent fires, floods and storms knows that climate change must be addressed. The difference is that at least we know that climate change is coming, and we’re clear what Australia needs to deliver.  

That’s because, like Britain, Australia has committed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Climate Agreement has emissions targets that we need to deliver. By 2030, our emissions will have to be at 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels. And by 2050, we’ll need to be producing net emissions of zero. 

So we know where we are going when it comes to emissions, but what does that mean for infrastructure?

Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has a membership made up of organisations involved in the planning and delivery of Australia’s built environment. 

Back in 2017, ASBEC held a series of roundtables with key decision makers from across the infrastructure sector. These experts identified that changing the way we write infrastructure business cases is crucial. 

Bang for Buck explains that improving the way we use data and creating new processes could help us make better decisions about how we spend our infrastructure budget.

In partnership with ClimateWorks Australia and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), ASBEC has now produced a report called Reshaping Infrastructure for a net zero emissions future

This makes it clear that infrastructure is a very important part of getting Australia to our planned zero emissions future, and illustrates how it needs to happen. 

renewable energy cityscape

Infrastructure contributes to our national emissions in three ways. Embodied emissions are created when making and transporting materials which become part of the physical structure. Steel or concrete would be examples of these. 

Then there are the operating emissions, caused by using the infrastructure once it’s been constructed. These could take the form of energy used to move a train along a train line or pump water through pipes. 

Finally, there are enabled emissions, caused by the activities made possible by the infrastructure. Cars driving along a road that has been constructed would be an example of enabled emissions. 

Together, all these kinds of emissions make up a large percentage of Australia’s total, with infrastructure directly responsible for 15 per cent of our emissions and indirectly responsible for 55 per cent.

Australia’s Infrastructure Audit is clear that we need to address climate change, but notes that there is a significant risk that we won’t meet our 2030 Paris Agreement emissions targets. 

It’s clear that we need to include emissions targets in our infrastructure decisions and processes. We can’t wait until halfway through a project to find out that emissions commitments pose a risk to its completion. 

With a limited infrastructure budget, a bad decision could leave us stuck with an expensive bill for building something that wrecks our chances of meeting our emissions targets. Good decisions, on the other hand, could save us all energy, money and improve quality of life for millions of Australians.

So what’s the next step? What we need to do, as infrastructure professionals, is start the conversation. How can those of us who work in the sector include new and early ways of taking emissions into account in the work we do? 

Australia knows where it has to go: a zero carbon economy by 2050. But we can’t get there without the infrastructure sector. Let’s get the ‘net zero’ conversation started.

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