Building back sustainably in a deeper shade of green

“Disruption forces people to think differently,” says Dr Kristen MacAskill, Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and emerging recovery strategies indicate political leaders are doing exactly that in prioritising sustainability. So does post-pandemic policy herald a global shift towards bigger green ambitions and how can the infrastructure sector step up to respond?

‘Build back better’ has become a mantra of the pandemic, signalling a political ambition for positive renewal rather than the resumption of business as usual in recovery. While COVID-19 continues to take a toll on economies, cities, communities and lives, political leaders are setting policies that aim to drive a sustainable economic recovery, enhance resilience against environmental shocks and ultimately deliver net zero carbon emissions.

Preliminary analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year identified at least 30 countries that have included measures to support the transition to greener economies as part of their COVID-19 recovery plans. While new US president Joe Biden’s economic plan pledges a first term US$2 trillion investment in sustainable infrastructure, such as clean energy.

Never let a crisis go to waste

“Crises generate windows of opportunity on policy. Disruption forces people to think differently. Many are already pushing forward the climate agenda and momentum has been building, but this is an opportunity to push this issue further into the mainstream,” says Dr Kristen MacAskill.

What this means for infrastructure is MacAskill’s area of expertise. A civil engineer by training, she works in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, in the UK, where she is a Lecturer in Engineering, Environment and Sustainable Development, and specialises in research around urban infrastructure’s sustainability and resilience.

In these twin areas of research, she is reflecting different facets of the climate emergency, as she explains, “sustainability is about the wider impacts of what we do, while resilience is about recognising uncertainty. What has happened with the pandemic has highlighted limitations in how we manage risk.”

A time for leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike other forms of large-scale disaster, MacAskill says. “It does not directly affect physical infrastructure – there has been no damage to our transport networks or power lines, as there would be in a flood or wildfire.” It also differs in its timescale, she adds. “You can have a five-to-ten-year timeline of recovery for a flood, say, but for the pandemic it is harder to see the shape of the recovery timeline, particularly given the extended crisis-mode."

However, we need to maintain awareness, that to move out of crisis, a vision for recovery is needed and the window of opportunity for change can be smaller than you might anticipate.

"When we are able to move on from the pandemic, the plans for a green recovery need to be comprehensive and compelling. Climate change is not the only sustainability issue in town and while technology can help, it will not fix everything.”

Leadership is also needed in tackling climate change itself, in order to drive longer-term strategies and redefine value, moving its emphasis away from the monetary towards environmental, wellbeing and social priorities, as set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “Sustainable change requires that longer-term thinking,” says MacAskill.

In talking of a shift to sustainable value, she cites former Bank of England and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, one of a number of economists advocating for greener economic models, saying, “economic growth without recognition of wider wellbeing is fundamentally flawed. Carney talks of aligning what we value with what our values are. We currently have a problem with our economic systems and the politics of our systems. Unless there is demand for leaders to change the system, there won’t be change.”

An example of how current systems hamper sustainable action on the ground could be seen in the infrastructure reconstruction work that followed the 2011 flooding and Cyclone Yasi in Queensland, Australia, and the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Queensland and Christchurch have both faced challenges in recovery. While there is funding available in these countries to recover assets, there are restrictions when it comes to building differently and implementing improvements for sustainability.

Such obstacles are gradually being addressed globally through the development of more sustainable investment instruments, such as green bonds, loans and even leases, but coverage remains limited.

Embracing change in infrastructure

While the pandemic has brought widespread disruption and shifts in emerging policy, a recovery drive for net zero and climate resilience could present opportunities for the infrastructure sector, if it too embraces change.

The industry is at risk of becoming a deliverer of infrastructure, rather than a trusted adviser on shaping the future of our cities.

"Many companies would argue that they can’t do more on their projects because of funding constraints. However, many in our sector could also do more to change their own internal culture. CEOs need to shift their mindset to truly engage with sustainability thinking in their strategic agenda” says MacAskill.

Data analysis reveals new answers

Improved data gathering could also allow the industry to measure the environmental value of its work, notably in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the same way, the UK Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority review is looking to get data around cost and performance benchmarks to measure and improve project outcomes.

MacAskill emphasises a need for caution in establishing indicators around sustainability. “There are questions around what good looks like and what data should be collected,” she explains. “We don’t have widely agreed baselines and there is no requirement for reporting in many areas. The collection of data solely for reporting purposes would be ineffective and could impose burdens on organisations, so it would need to be part of established processes.”

Data gathering goes hand-in-hand with a broader requirement for the sector to be more open in communicating its decision-making and activities. “In order to publish in academia, you need to show your methodology, but in industry, showing how you arrived at a conclusion often does not feature in public reporting,” says MacAskill. “There is a need for more transparency and explanation so that people are fully informed.”

Enabling a can-do culture

Above all, the industry needs to evolve its culture to embed sustainability in its corporate mindset, says MacAskill, although that goal appears some way off, as she adds, “We’re seeing more of a culture shift in thinking around net zero, but it is not yet seen as a fundamental part of the culture”.

The pandemic is already changing thinking among political leaders, driving bigger ambitions on net zero, resilience, wellbeing and other sustainable goals. MacAskill is confident the construction industry will evolve its own thinking too and rise to the challenges presented by bolder policies. “You have to be optimistic,” she says. The industry’s future route to a more sustainable future can be summed up in a concise message for its leaders from MacAskill. “If you decide to create a culture where you enable things to happen, you give legitimacy to positive action,” she concludes.

For further information contact:

Alan King
Director of Major Programmes

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