No longer an optional addition, rail infrastructure projects are looking to mandate sustainability as part of the project’s outcomes, and are looking to their long-term impact on people and environment.
Incorporating sustainability into the construction of a rail project may seem like an oxymoron. As rail transport gets people out of cars and into electrically powered trains, and goods off trucks and onto more efficient freight trains, isn’t rail by its very nature sustainable?
Ainsley Simpson, CEO of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), argues that this is not the case.
“Just because it’s rail doesn’t make it more sustainable, similarly just because a wind farm produces renewable energy doesn’t mean that it’s been planned in the most sustainable way. It doesn’t mean it’s been designed in the most sustainable way, and certainly not that it has been constructed in the most sustainable way.”
Simpson’s argument that sustainability need to be a bigger focus in infrastructure construction is backed by some heavy hitters within the infrastructure sector, with Infrastructure Australia noting in its 2019 Infrastructure Audit that governments “often do not incorporate sustainability or resilience into their final infrastructure projects”.
“We do see occasionally on project or programs of work, contractual requirements or even preferred options around resilience and sustainability,” said Peter Colacino, chief of policy and research at Infrastructure Australia. “And obviously their inclusion time to time points to their exclusion the rest of the time.”
Researchers have also pointed to the emissions intensity of large infrastructure projects. In a 2017 study, researchers from the University of NSW, The University of Sydney, and the University of Melbourne found that while direct emissions from the construction sector in Australia were low, at 1.9 per cent of Australia’s direct emissions in 2013, emissions contributed by infrastructure when measured by final demand made up almost a fifth of Australia’s carbon footprint, 18.1 per cent. This calculation involved looking at not only the carbon emissions involved in the process of building, but those that were emitted in the course of manufacturing the building materials and providing other services, what’s known as embodied emissions.
In rail projects, which have a lifetime of 100 years, carbon emissions from the construction process and embodied emissions within construction materials can account for almost half of all emissions over the asset’s lifetime.
With these figures in hand, rail projects being built now are looking at how they can cut the emissions involved in construction and ensure that rail infrastructure is sustainable from all perspectives. One project that Simpson highlights as leading the way is the Sydney Metro project in combining operational, design, and construction impacts.
“Sydney Metro included all of the embodied energy and the construction materials that were being used, so they looked at using low- emission concrete and more recycled steel, which had a considerable reduction in the footprint of their project. They also had a look at how they might reduce operational energy, through design and the ways in which they operate the trainsets themselves, and then they’ve got the power purchasing agreement where they are offsetting 100 per cent of their operational energy with renewable energy. That’s a first in Australia, nothing has been done like that ever before.”
While this is a commendable example, looking across the field as a whole, Colacino argues that there needs to be greater consistency in the way that the infrastructure sector approaches thinking about the long-term future of their assets.
“A strong message in the 2019 audit is that there’s no consistent approach to resilience, and I think we’ve seen in this year – perhaps more than any year for people within the last century – just how critical resilience is, whether it’s floods that follow bushfires on the south coast of NSW, or of course the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which is affecting us now. We’ve seen this compounding impact.”
Where sustainability has been incorporated into projects, it is often because of efforts initiated at the beginning of a project or at a leadership level. While Infrastructure Australia found that until now governments were not often including sustainability, in rail at least, Simpson and Colacino have seen a greater focus on sustainability.
“We’re definitely seeing a greater consideration of social and environmental issues, and I think the challenge is around putting a cost around some of those issues and assessing them to monetise and then cost them,” said Colacino.
Simpson similarly noted a shift in the way that governments approach sustainability. “Particularly in the last three years there has been almost a doubling of emphasis and importance placed on sustainability,” said Simpson.“What we’ve seen is a significant shift for the transport sector that is largely being driven by government authorities wanting to demonstrate best practice and government wanting to ensure that social and community outcomes are being delivered by their projects.
“The way that they’re doing that is contractualising sustainability performance measurement.”
The shift in the way that infrastructure authorities and governments are thinking about sustainability can be seen in the sustainability reports put out with each project. No longer a catalogue of emissions reduced, or waste avoided at the end of the project, the reports are now stipulating how contractors and subcontractors are mandated to find sustainable solutions and are becoming much more of a compliance document than a public relations exercise.
As Sydney Metro outlines in its June 2019 update to the 2017-2024 Sydney Metro City and Southwest Sustainability Strategy, targets within the strategy will be embedded within contract requirements. Outcomes to be included in contracts include Aboriginal participation, apprenticeships offered, emissions and pollution, and climate change resilience.
The appearance of such initiatives in contract documents highlights how previously qualitative values have begun to be quantified. Colacino sees some more creative thinking occurring to incorporate these factors.
“If you think about quality of life and you’re considering the way that people perceive social time or access to recreational facilities, they are difficult to monetise. Therefore, we need to make sure we’re considering the range of tools that are available to improve decision-making. That means thinking about building a better evidence base about the impact of some of these themes on people’s lives.”
This ensures that the push towards sustainability does not end when the project finishes, but percolates throughout the supply chain in the practices and norms of the sector.
One way this can be measured is in the bulk of projects now receiving Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) ratings, certified by ISCA. As the CEO, Simpson oversees how these projects are able to prove that they have met standards and thresholds for sustainability.
“Three years ago, we had $65 billion of infrastructure under rating, now it’s over 170bn.”
Each state in Australia has different requirements about what projects have to measure their performance, starting at projects above $100 million in Queensland and Western Australia, projects above $50m, all state significant works in NSW and capital works above $10m in the ACT. In Victoria, where major projects such as the Level Crossing Removal Project have been split up into smaller packages, each of the packages are being rated. With all states having committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the federal government having signed onto the Paris agreement, infrastructure will be one
area where governments are looking to find environmental outcomes.
Outside of government mandates, being able to prove and certify with an independent third body that projects are sustainable is also being encouraged by the private sector.
“There’s a shift with investors as well and they’re interested in investing in infrastructure that has got resilience and is inclusive and will drive a low carbon economy into the future,” said Simpson.
Colacino has also heard from industry that private sector funding is encouraging sustainable thinking.
“Consideration around sustainability issues are growing as a focus for investors and there’s a whole class of funds that are specifically looking for those projects.”
While large rail projects have the funding and resources to be able to implement sustainability plans and comply with audit requirements, smaller contractors carrying out smaller packages of work may not be able to commit to the same level of sustainability. Simpson looks to larger infrastructure organisations to lead the way.
“There’s going to need to be investment in making sure that Tier 2 and 3 contractors are able to deliver these outcomes and are appropriately resourced and skilled and supported to do that.”
Additionally, embedding sustainability into brownfield projects and ongoing maintenance presents another area where sustainable outcomes can be embedded into work practices, and not act as an addition.
“While we’ve got this pipeline of new infrastructure building coming up, I don’t think that we should forget the tremendous asset base that we already have and that there is some low hanging fruit in how we maintain and operate that infrastructure,” said Simpson.
Within these contracted requirements for new and existing infrastructure, what a sustainable outcome means will be distinct for each project.
For updating existing infrastructure, Metro Trains Melbourne targeted improving water consumption in 2019, and by conducting a water audit leaks were able to be found, which reduced water consumption across the network by 35 per cent.
In Auckland, City Rail Link has looked to engage with local Maori iwi, or tribes, to ensure that in its construction phase, the project benefits the local community.
Another emerging area of focus is the move to a circular economy, said Colacino.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing consideration around recycled materials, reducing the use of water in construction, sourcing sustainable products like timber, and of course there’s waste.”
Whether driven by government targets, private sector investment, or civil construction practices, sustainability will increasingly become part of all projects as a way to mitigate against an uncertain future, said Colacino.
“If you look over the long term, issues of sustainability become increasingly important. We’re existing in a rapidly changing, uncertain market and COVID-19 is the standout example of that at the moment, but cyber-attack is a key risk for many infrastructure projects and equally factors like natural hazards, fire and flood.
“As you look beyond the immediacy of delivering a project to the long-term issues of market health and community outcomes, sustainability will always be a core consideration and so it should be.”