Fergus Wooler

December 14, 2023

The infrastructure sector is not decarbonising fast enough. Here’s what needs to change

“Decarbonisation of the Infrastructure Sector”, a recent report by FIDIC, provides a best practice approach through the lifecycle of infrastructure projects, focusing on scope 3 emissions. Ramboll’s Elina Kalliala and Saila Vicente break down the report’s conclusions and provide ways to overcome the main barriers to large-scale change in developing low carbon infrastructure.

Infrastructure projects are typically complex, long-lasting, and large-scale, with environmental and climate impact in the construction, maintenance, and operation phases. The choices made by decision makers in these phases, often determine the lifecycle greenhouse gases emissions of projects.

As infrastructure is among the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, the sector has an urgent responsibility to embed decarbonisation through the lifecycle of assets and help the sector stay within the 1.5°C threshold for global warming.

The report, co-authored by Ramboll and consultancy Arcadis, and launched by FIDIC (the International Federation of Consulting Engineers) in September 2022, provides a guide for consulting engineers and contractors in the global infrastructure sector for applying scope 3 carbon emissions on downstream activities.

Ramboll’s Elina Kalliala and Saila Vicente, who co-authored the report, helped us break down the report’s main conclusions.

What are your top three takeaways from the report on reducing carbon emissions in infrastructure?

Elina: A unique aspect of this report is that it details guidelines for reducing carbon in infrastructure across every phase of the project lifecycle. Being able to see the bigger picture and how it is all interconnected enables us to make more informed decisions about where we can make the greatest impact in minimising emissions.

The report also calls for a fundamental shift in the way we traditionally approach infrastructure.

We need to question whether we can upgrade or repurpose existing infrastructure before we consider building new, to reduce embodied carbon.

Elina Kalliala
Head of Sustainability, Transport

Where new build is required, the design should be lean to minimise material use, durable to maximise lifespan, and circular to ensure elements are derived from recycled materials and can themselves be re-used.

A final takeaway from the report is to carefully consider the wider impacts of infrastructure development. For instance, infrastructure consumes more than half the world’s materials – and to put this into context, resource extraction and processing cause 90% of biodiversity loss and 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Social aspects are also often forgotten even though it is people who use the infrastructure or live next to it.

How can we – as engineering consultants - influence infrastructure developers and investors to minimise carbon emissions in their value chain?

Saila: End users have a crucial part to play in the cultural change that is needed around infrastructure development. For example, as we introduce more circular materials into infrastructure projects, the assets may look less visually appealing despite being durable and fully fit for purpose. We need to be more active in keeping end users informed to ensure they understand and accept new low-carbon practices.

As consultants, we should try and engage with developers and investors at the earliest stages of the planning process. We will then be able to make the biggest possible impact on carbon emissions across the asset life cycle and question whether new infrastructure is even needed.

Illustrative influence on environmental impact during design and the cumulative impact during infrastructure lifecycle stages (Source: Mattias Lindahl, Tomohiko Sakao and Erik Sundin, Linköping University, Sweden).

What are the main barriers to large-scale and sustained change in developing low carbon infrastructure – and how can they be overcome?

Elina: There is a general lack of awareness that circular approaches can be more cost effective. Sourcing sustainable materials could require higher investments, but we can highlight numerous cases where savings have been realised with lower carbon solutions.

To further bring down costs, we need to rapidly scale the market for circular and low carbon materials. I believe we need industry-wide agreements committing to procurement of emerging materials such as low carbon concrete. Suppliers will then feel confident to ramp up production of these materials.

Saila: The availability of Environmental Product Declarations is also influencing the transition. Having reliable information, especially regarding the most emission-intensive components, would bolster low-carbon development.

Are the right policies in place to enforce reductions in infrastructure emissions?

Saila: We see increasingly stringent national legislation around demolition, waste, and greenfield development. In the EU we have the Green Deal and the Circular Taxonomy that are driving change.

I believe we need additional regulations that force us to prioritise the retention of existing infrastructure and reconsider whether new build is even required.

Where new construction is the only option, we would benefit from policies that incentivise innovation in circular materials.

Saila Vicente,
Designer

We should stimulate demand for such materials by making technical standardisation and regulations more adaptable for innovative materials with a view to dispelling the perceived risks that developers and insurers currently associate with these materials.

What will it take for the infrastructure sector to quickly adopt these new approaches?

Elina: The interest in new approaches and materials has grown, particularly where the authorities have higher requirements. As awareness grows, the linkages between the potential environmental, financial, and social benefits of taking action are better recognised. Resistance arises when the changes are seen to be too risky or complex. As an industry we need to be better in addressing the risks that need to be taken and communicating the experiences in using novel approaches and circular materials.

We should persuade organisations that embedding more sustainable practices is not as complex as they assume. For instance, by instigating cross sector knowledge sharing focusing on tangible actions, best practices, and examples we can enable them to navigate and embrace change.

Download the report “Decarbonisation of the Infrastructure Sector” here.

Want to know more?

  • Elina Kalliala

    Sustainability Director, Transport

    +358 50 5111866

  • Saila Vicente

    Designer

    +358 40 5689702