By Imogen Hartmann, Journalist, Infrastructure magazine

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact across the country, with restrictions hampering progress for some projects. But while the crisis presents many challenges, these unprecedented conditions may also present a unique opportunity to re-focus on sustainability.

The topic of using the economic rebuild to make assets more sustainable was explored at the recent Future of Infrastructure Virtual Conference

Speakers also delved into issues including the rise of cloud-based infrastructure; how mobility and transport usage will change, and what the sector can do to meet this new demand; what nation rebuilding will look like post-COVID; and the new waves of innovation for the sector. 

This is the second in a series of content looking at the key takeaways from the event. 

Ainsley Simpson, CEO of Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), discussed how the COVID-19 economic rebuild presents an opportunity to increase sustainability in infrastructure.

Ainsley said that sustainability, as with any target, starts with a vision, and that ISCA’s vision for sustainability has been incorporated into its recently launched strategic plan.

“This includes creating a positive future for the human race, for the environment, and the economy of which we are a part of,” Ainsley said.

“That might seem like a fairly big challenge for us, but indeed, it’s not that complex, it is fairly simple: we focus on the long-term, we measure what matters, and we work with the infrastructure industry to deliver social, cultural, environmental and economic returns.”

In a recent report from the Global Infrastructure Hub, Infrastructure Futures, sustainability and resilience both featured strongly as one of the top five mega trends.

Ainsley said that this research shows that there are two main sustainability and resilience risks posed to the industry: aging infrastructure, and a low preparedness to handle risks like natural disasters and climate change.

Ainsley noted that a lack of incorporating sustainability into infrastructure final projects by the Australian Government is an issue highlighted in Infrastructure Australia’s Infrastructure Audit, but that this does not stem from lack of opportunities. Rather, Ainsley said, Australia is positioned to be a world leader in developing and applying sustainability enhancing approaches in infrastructure.

Implementing sustainability into projects

Ainsley said that the key elements of incorporating sustainability into infrastructure projects include:

  • Leveraging procurement to stimulate economies 
  • Implementing policies at government and corporate levels that set sustainable, resilient and economically productive outcomes as the default
  • Sourcing low emissions materials 
  • Using design optimisation to reduce the volume of materials that are required
  • Investing in recycling innovations which divert construction and demolition waste from landfill
  • Investing in human capital through training, development and cultural value immunity
  • Implementing a comprehensive sustainability rating system to capture the most accurate data
  • Considering public benefit as well as ‘shovel readiness’ when assessing investments

Ainsley said that while there is some incremental progression of sustainability in the infrastructure industry, it is limited to the most progressive asset owners and is not widespread across the region.

But those that are investing in sustainability are seeing cost savings and a reduction in carbon offsets.

In March 2020, ISCA released the issues paper Reshaping Infrastructure for a Net Zero Future, which found that 70 per cent of Australian emissions are enabled by infrastructure, with  transport and energy being the two most significant sectoral contributors.

That 70 per cent is made up of construction practices, operations, and the activities that are enabled from infrastructure.

“That enablement oftentimes sits at the earliest possible stage in an assets lifecycle,” Ainsley said.

Ainsley said that the earliest stage of infrastructure projects is where the greatest amount of difference can happen in terms of sustainability. Therefore, as states are getting ready to inject billions of the dollars into the economy, sustainability should be at the forefront of the decisions being made.

“When the change is urgent, our entire nation can shift in a heartbeat,” Ainsley said.

“And that is why now is the right time for us to create this change and make the shift, when there is such great receptivity for change across our entire market.”

Watch Ainsley’s full presentation on-demand here.

The Future of Infrastructure Virtual Conference will return on 30 September as part of the Critical Infrastructure Summit. For more information or to register for the Summit, click here.

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