As Australian state and territory governments mobilise to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, so too is the infrastructure industry.
Achieving such a goal is by no means simple or linear; it requires a whole-of-business, systems-based approach across every asset lifecycle. In other words, the way forward demands new thinking, strategy and action from every organisation, team and individual. The good news is that the data suggests we are more than up to the challenge.
This approach is laid out and broken down in a landmark report on the infrastructure industry’s commitment to sustainability. A Net Zero Future: Delivered Through Our Infrastructure Pipeline is a first-time collaboration between Australian Constructors Association, Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Consult Australia and Autodesk that fuses research, insights and case studies to provide a blueprint for a net-zero future.
To better understand the many pathways to net zero, the report lays out a five-pronged framework for success:
Here, we break down each.
Changing culture for a changing era
As it stands, infrastructure contributes roughly 70% of national emissions, and $166 billion will be spent on infrastructure from 2021-2024.
These statistics illustrate the unique position we are in to make the most significant contribution to emissions reductions of any Australian entity. But using that reach responsibly can only happen if we rethink our culture and approaches to every project from the outset.
Beyond asking whether new infrastructure is always the answer, much of our success in emissions reductions hangs on the planning and optioneering phases of assets. Here is where we redefine the way the industry operates – engaging early and effectively with the market and decision makers to find alternative technologies, products and processes to better meet sustainable goals.
It’s already happening. Construction company Laing O’Rourke integrated design models and carbon analysis data to generate footprint scenarios based on material types. This digital approach allowed them to measure carbon impacts and make big decisions on environmental, cost and performance outcomes.
Rethinking and redefining through a carbon-first lens is allowing for new innovations by the day. A review of eight major global infrastructure projects revealed that through this lens, significant emissions reductions can be achieved within existing budgets, and in most cases costs can even be reduced.
When new isn’t always better
Asset owners are now looking for ways to monitor and optimise the performance of existing assets, and to differentiate between what requires refurbishment and new construction. Digital solutions like Autodesk Construction Cloud allow users to analyse assets on a forensic level and flag opportunities to maximise usage and minimise wastage.
During the design phase, owners are in a position to collaborate with stakeholders and engage technology to increase the resilience and futureproofing of assets. Factoring the extended lifetime and reuse potential of assets into the early phases of the project lifecycle makes a meaningful contribution to emissions reductions.
Less is sometimes so much more
Opportunities for emissions reductions can be found across the board, from delivery approaches to resource consumption to materials. Policy makers, regulators, planners, engineers, contractors and assets managers can all take advantage of these opportunities.
The journey to net zero runs parallel to the move to low-emission fuels (such as biofuel) in lieu of electrification, for both in-transit and on-site. Studies indicate that emissions from materials and construction could be nearly halved by using best-available technologies and methods, with the most significant reductions coming from fuel switching and manufacturing.
Improved efficiencies in logistics also make a marked difference, whether in terms of new deployment and administration methods for equipment, or centralised fleet management. Infrastructure company Acciona harnessed fleet management technology for planning and to address inefficiencies on the fly, achieving substantial reductions in fuel-burn and hence, carbon emissions.
More sustainable versions of raw materials continue to hit the market, and designing in and procuring these materials is essential in the journey to net zero, as is using these products to tap into the circular economy.
For example, when tackling the Bell To Moreland Level Crossing Removal, the North Western Program Alliance opted to replace steel mesh reinforcement with eMesh Macro Synthetic Fibre by Fibercon. Doing so reduced C02 and P04 emissions – and water and fossil fuel consumption – by more than 90%.
Going even greener
Achieving net zero isn’t confined to omission and optimisation, but also encompasses the broad concept of leaving a net-positive environmental legacy. This means going beyond what is expected to create scenarios that foster environmental flourishing.
An example of such a scenario is investing in renewables and producing more than is needed by an asset, thus making the excess available for other purposes. Another is to exceed what constitutes compliance and willingly engage in the rehabilitation of ecosystems, habitats, waterways, or soils. A third, is to not merely offset the carbon footprint of an asset, but to invest in additional registered offsetting or sequestration.
During the Waratah and Wyee Stations Upgrade, Jacobs was able to exceed biodiversity offset requirements across two sites by 50%, enhancing ecological benefits through drought-resilient native planting that reduced future water needs and lifetime use by 43%.
On target for a better tomorrow
The journey to a net zero future is made up of a multitude of long, winding and often-intersecting paths. While 2030 and 2050 emissions targets may seem daunting, the findings of this report demonstrate that our industry is capable of not only meeting, but exceeding those targets – as long as our efforts are joint and comprehensive.
We now have proof that harnessing digital technology and viewing all phases of the asset lifecycle through a carbon-first lens satisfies multiple outcomes at once – contributing to Australia’s future, improving industry efficiency, and even reducing costs. The task now is to look through that lens together; to collaborate and innovate and ensure every step we take is in service of a brighter and safer future.