Driving a sustainable culture in infrastructure

By Doug Harland*, CEO of AGIC
Monday, 01 March, 2010

Significant infrastructure projects in Australia are being developed with a focus on short-term goals. I believe we need to develop a culture of sustainability within the industry to ensure projects are designed and built with long-term operation in mind.

There’s been a bit of a vacuum as far as sustainable standards and tools for infrastructure development in Australia are concerned. The building industry has the Green Building Council’s Green Star rating tool to encourage sustainable building development, but there has been nothing similar that designers, consultants and the construction industry can apply to infrastructure projects.

The Australian Green Infrastructure Council (AGIC) was instigated by industry to address this gap and develop the world’s first Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme to encourage best-practice sustainable infrastructure delivery.

This scheme has the potential to have a huge impact on sustainable development as the wide-ranging footprint of infrastructure projects can often affect the economy of entire regions. It covers all the elements that connect cities, including heavy transport such as rail and road, bridges, airports, ports, water processes, and distribution grids such as electricity and gas.

The proposed Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme is expected to launch in 2010, although this will be subject to government funding being available.

Its aim is to develop an industry culture that looks at the long-term aspects of a project, rather than just the short-term goals.

As well as the social and economic benefits of sustainable projects, contractors and suppliers should begin to see immediate benefits by applying sustainable practices, particularly when the rating scheme is introduced, as the resulting development will be more energy efficient, have low greenhouse gas emissions and lower embodied energy.

Such projects drive local employment and skill development in regional areas. There will also be an economic gain for the region in which the infrastructure is being built. For example, to reduce embodied energy, more material will need to be sourced locally.

While it will not be mandatory for industry to comply with these sustainable practices, construction industry members that embrace the rating scheme stand to benefit a great deal. They will hold a competitive advantage when it comes to tendering for a project and enhance their reputation by being able to showcase their achievements in the field of sustainability and innovation.

One of the myths about sustainability is that it costs money to implement. In fact, in many cases industries can expect to save money as a result of the scheme. Once you apply a sustainable model, you actually identify cost savings.

Even though the rating scheme is still in draft format, we’ve had a lot of interest from members of the investment community, which sees benefit in using the scheme’s 27 sub-categories to assess whether a proposed project is sound. As far as investors are concerned, sustainable infrastructure projects offer better longevity, lower operational costs — such as energy, lower ongoing maintenance costs and more consistent returns on investment.

Applying the scheme in this way, developers may find they have better access to finance — a project’s risk profiles are improved and there is evidence that it will align with socially responsible investment guidelines.

There’s been discussion over whether the scheme will be successful in driving a culture of sustainability in infrastructure development due to the fact it will be a voluntary system. I actually believe voluntary schemes can have more success than a set of standards that demand a minimum level of compliance.

For example, when the building industry initially introduced a statutory minimum energy standard it actually resulted in a compliance only mentality, with innovation and best-practice outcomes decreasing. These important outcomes increased again when a voluntary scheme was introduced.

AGIC will offer training programs for self-assessment along with case studies of innovation and best practice to infrastructure stakeholders so they can see what leaders in the industry are doing in terms of sustainability. We hope this will spread right through the culture of an organisation, from the professional levels to the trades. Ideally, it will drive a culture of sustainability in the industry overall.

* Doug Harland is CEO of AGIC. A mechanical engineer, he started his career with the Southern Cross organisation as a diesel engine designer, assuming the position of Executive General Manager of Toowoomba Metal Technologies in 1993. Before joining AGIC, Doug was past Queensland President and National Vice-President of the Australian Industry Group.

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