Sustainable ideals for Australia’s infrastructure sector

Scott Losee, a prominent figure in the establishment of the ISCA talks about the concept of sustainable infrastructure and how it has evolved in the Australian market.In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission put forward that sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

While the UN definition can be regarded as a general consensus on the topic, the concept is much more complex, particularly in regards to sustainable infrastructure here in Australia.

“Sustainability has always been an abstract concept, and back in 2006 there was a lot of bleating about multiple, competing definitions of it,” explains Scott Losee, Director of Scott Losee Consulting, a firm specialising in sustainability, climate change and environment challenges for infrastructure. “Finding a way to measure sustainability and collapsing it into a single measure, like a score or rating, promised to make it more accessible for the semi-interested.”

Sustainability in infrastructure is not a new ideal in Australia. However, in the past decade, a driving force has created a clearer and more concise definition of the concept and how it can be appropriately measured and applied to the Australian market. This driving force is the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA).

The idea for the organisation was sparked in 2007 and today, it is an authority on sustainability in Australia. Its Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating scheme is now used on a wide range of infrastructure projects and assets across the country as a means of measuring and rating just how sustainable projects, and the practices used within them, are.

Mr. Losee, a key figure in ISCA since its conception, talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about the organisation, its IS rating scheme, sustainable infrastructure in Australia and how the concept has evolved and will continue to change in the future.

New horizons

While the Green Star rating system has been successfully implemented in the Australian construction sector, more specifically buildings, Mr. Losee asserts that in 2007 the market wanted something more. “Infrastructure developers and asset managers kept asking for a ‘5 star’ road or rail line, not appreciating that Green Star did not cover infrastructure,” he says. “There were a lot of people eager for this kind of system because they want to see innovation, they want to see sustainability.”

In 2007, a presentation titled “Does Australia need an environmental rating scheme” was shown to Engineers Australia. Mr. Losee was at this first meeting, off the back of which a steering committee was established.

The aim was to develop something in Australia akin to the Civil Engineering Environmental Quality Assessment and Award Scheme (CEEQUAL) in the United Kingdom. CEEQUAL is a sustainability assessment, rating and awards scheme for civil engineering, infrastructure, landscaping and other public assets, and celebrates the achievement of high environmental and social performances. It provides influence to a project or contract team as they develop, design and construct their work, encouraging them to consider sustainability issues and challenges in their respective projects.

Mr. Losee joined the steering committee, which eventually became the ISCA Board. He says his interest in the development of ISCA and its rating scheme was to make sure that it wasn’t just “greenwashing” or an unbalanced concept that favoured one group over another and that it was fair across the industry.

“We were also encouraging it to follow the broad interpretation of sustainability, rather than picking up environmental outcomes only [like CEEQUAL then did]” he adds.

In November 2008, the committee commenced with the development of a rating system that could evaluate sustainability across design, construction and operation of infrastructure.

Mr. Losee facilitated the session that founded the categories around which this rating tool would be organised. He also created the cut-down version of the scheme called Quick Check, eventually going on to develop the spreadsheet that is used for scoring IS submissions (scorecard).

By August 2011, the IS rating scheme had been developed and pilot trialled on more than 15 projects and assets across Australia. The tool was then fine tuned and launched nationally in February 2012.

The IS rating scheme consists of an IS Scorecard, IS Materials Calculator and Materials Calculator Guideline, and features more than 50 credits across 15 categories by which infrastructure projects and assets are rated. Through this system contractors can strive to hit some significant sustainability outcomes and an asset owner can set a certain level of sustainability to achieve. Overall the sustainable outcomes on a project are more transparent for both industry and the public.

“What we see now is that asset owners, like state road authorities and companies like Transurban, are including a level of sustainability to be achieved in their tender documents, using the IS Scheme as a measure,” says Mr. Losee.

The design and construction contract on the billion-dollar Gateway Upgrade North project in Brisbane, for instance, requires the project to achieve an “Excellent” rating.

Mr. Losee explains that this kind of requirement establishes an agreement between the owner and the contractor to perform to a high standard across a wide range of community and environmental outcomes.

“Nearly all the major players in the infrastructure industry have been involved with ISCA. Initially, it was mainly consultants, then contractors, then state departments and increasingly, suppliers,” he says.

“Part of what gets organisations to participate is the idea that, if we’re going to do this sustainability thing, let’s make sure it is going to be fair and practical and worthwhile.”

The understanding of this kind of system, sustainability and the attitude towards it has changed, particularly with the introduction of ISCA and its IS rating scheme.

On the road to sustainability

When Mr. Losee began in the Australian roads and civil sector, working for Queensland Transport and Main Roads in 1991, the environmental impacts of roads were well understood. “The problem was that the core road builders thought of matters like environmental protection, community consultation, public transport, active travel and sustainability as low priorities,” he says.

Even in the development of the IS rating scheme, Mr. Losee asserts that engineers and professionals who, with more than 30 years’ experience in the sector, were reluctant to try and adapt to a new way of thinking. Sustainable outcomes had not been a strong focus in the past.

“There was systemic inertia,” he says. “The establishment was not used to dealing with these ‘new’ considerations and would really prefer to just go about their business as they always had.”

Even after the establishment of ISCA and the IS rating scheme and more than two decades later, Mr. Losee says that engineers are still conservative. However, they’ve been exposed to these considerations and have started to incorporate them into their practices to varying degrees.

He asserts that while attitudes towards sustainability are evolving, there is still more that needs to be understood.

Mr. Losee agrees that the concept of sustainability in road and civil infrastructure in Australia is more complex than first thought. “It is common to talk about roads in terms of their physical construction, rather than their use or function within a transport system or a community,” he says.

Some significant considerations for sustainability in road construction include the environmental impacts of materials such as greenhouse gas emissions, operational energy use, removal of vegetation, the conversion of land into impermeable surfaces and workforce and employment.

“By far and away the greatest sustainability considerations for roads is their daily use,” says Mr. Losee. Roads are vital transport links for vehicles, which use fossil fuels, release greenhouse gas emissions and cause noise and pollution. However, roads also provide the primary means by which people and goods are moved from place to place.

“Planning and integrated transport decision making has always been the main game on sustainability,” he says. “ISCA has been cautious in entering this field because there was an initial view that it might involve second-guessing government policy decisions.”

Changing attitudes

Mr. Losee notes that how sustainability is viewed in Australia has changed with the creation of bodies such as ISCA and other progressive ideals and entities.

Not only is it an intellectual curiosity for environmental managers who are otherwise consigned to “getting approvals”, as Mr. Losee puts it, but sustainability is what the decision makers are talking about. “It’s what they promise clients, or demand of contractors. It’s also become important to non-environmental disciplines, especially communications professionals and commercial managers,” he says.

Some states have been quite receptive to the IS rating scheme, with many Queensland and New South Wales infrastructure projects, such as NorthConnex and Gateway Upgrade North, using the system.

“We have more non-government parties participating in developing infrastructure and the business sector is happy to challenge the status quo and push innovation. In some cases, this increases profit. In others it avoids unnecessary bureaucracy and risk aversion that can be professionally frustrating,” says Mr. Losee.

He says that awareness of sustainability is successfully filtering down in the industry, and it’s not just first tier contractors employing sustainability programs.

“It’s interesting to observe project directors taking a personal interest in sustainability and making sure that their projects meet their clients’ expectations in that area,” he says.

“I think the calibre of younger people coming through the industry has definitely had an effect too.”

Even community expectations and stakeholder engagement have played a part in this attitude change towards sustainable outcomes.

“We used to get aggregate from dredging the Brisbane River and lime for concrete from mining coral. Borrow pits were virtually unregulated and many quarries were either run by governments or given strong legal protections,” he says.

These days, he asserts, there is more thoughtful public and stakeholder scrutiny on road projects and builders now need a wider variety of solutions.

Although ISCA has received funding from the Commonwealth Government, Mr. Losee ponders the role the government will still need to play in infrastructure sustainability.

“Decisions made at the national level, with large capital investments attached, always seem to be overly political. The decision makers seem less concerned about how their investments can be realised in more sustainable ways, than how they can marshal votes from one area or another,” says Mr. Losee.

He asserts that sustainability can be used to work through difficult social and environmental trade-offs, negotiating better overall outcomes. However, the political influence seems to lean towards less challenging options.

“I’m sure part of the reason is the three to four-year political term compared to a 100-year lifespan for an infrastructure asset, or the sometimes even longer term environmental impacts, such as climate change,” he says.

“I’d still like to see the Federal Government be more proactive. They have the capacity to push it.”

What the future holds

When asked how sustainable ideas will change in the future, Mr. Losee points to fundamental changes already beginning to have repercussions for Australia’s infrastructure.

Innovative technology such as electric and driverless vehicles are already prepped to change how infrastructure, and by extension, the sustainability implications of that asset are managed.

Market led proposals will change the role the private sector plays, explains Mr. Losee, while regulation and governance will begin to move business in a positive direction.

However, Mr. Losee says there are some major factors to consider for the future.

“Although the oil price is low and the carbon tax is dead, climate change is not going away,” he says. “Globally, we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. This is unavoidable. The sooner we can do this, the less impact we will have on the global climate.”

He asserts that the industry needs to understand its overall carbon footprint, and drive home how important it is to use fewer materials on projects and to source them in a more sustainable way.

“The longer we wait to make the necessary changes, by which I mean drastic reductions in emissions, the faster and harsher the response will have to be when we finally get around to it,” he says.

“Given this long period of inadequate response to climate change by world governments, we are headed for an emergency response down the track, and that is likely to hit the road and infrastructure industry very hard.”

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