9th July 2020

Why building back better means building back greener

We need to work together as an industry to unlock the benefits of transitioning to a greener infrastructure solution

We might expect that in the midst of a pandemic, sustainability would drop inexorably down the political and business agenda. This is not the case. In fact, COVID-19 has only increased interest, demonstrating clearly that decisive or innovative action can help us meet global challenges. The Financial Times recently gave voice to this view when it thundered ‘COVID-19 shows why sustainable investment matters’ across its pages.

Infrastructure is no exception. And with increasing interest in investment in the sector, particularly as a bulwark to an economic slowdown, we stand on the cusp of a significant opportunity to enable sustainable growth. Both through supporting the transition to a greener infrastructure solution for the UK and with the development of low and zero carbon technologies alongside a greater focus on a circular economy.

At a policy level, the pandemic has in no way dislodged the nation’s lofty ambition when it comes to sustainability. In fact, a recent report from Climate Assembly UK suggested a large majority of the public would support a green recovery from the crisis. Measures announced in the Chancellor’s Summer Statement are thus a welcome first step, but perhaps only that, amidst widespread calls for a more comprehensive plan to be introduced.

It’s clear that, for businesses, environmental considerations are an essential component to everyday operations – a statement evidenced in our sector by the recent joining of forces under the UK Contractors Declare banner. Understandably so, with green infrastructure bringing with it a whole host of benefits. This is not simply mitigating the effects of climate change, but also improving public health, enhancing value, and drawing in opportunities for investment and job creation. Once more, what is needed to realise all of these benefits is a unified voice, leading the industry towards innovative solutions and collaborative change.

The changes needed involve sustainability and environmental performance becoming a driving force from concept and design, all the way through to delivery. For instance, understanding where circular economy principals can be adopted in material procurement and use, and considering the possibilities of the likes of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA). This, combined with a rise in digital construction techniques, also has a positive impact on quality of workmanship and a reduction in defects. Importantly, such measures need to be considered early in the project lifecycle in order to deliver.

One aspect of infrastructure with huge potential for a greener future is transport, responsible for around a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Headway has already been made in this area, as it has in many others, but there are far greater benefits to unlock.

The economic benefits of infrastructure investment is a repeated refrain of policymakers. The environmental benefits, though profound, are significantly less well known. This is, in part, because there are so many voices independently seeking to promote the benefits of green infrastructure. Perhaps, as we look to the future, it’s as much a question of how we ensure the leadership is in place to make a single, coherent case for sustainable investment as how we demonstrate the benefits themselves.

If the argument still needed greater weight, such benefits can often even come at a lesser cost compared to single-purpose grey infrastructure – so let’s get on with it!

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