“From concept to decommissioning – everything must improve” Graham Pontin


After speaking at the UN Environment Programme’s sixth Global Environment Outlook for Business, FIDIC head of economic and strategic policy, Graham Pontin, writes for Infrastructure Global about the wholesale change needed to achieve sustainable development goals.   

Our industry is being targeted with global funding on a scale never seen before, to meet twin challenges of climate change and sustainable development that are quite unlike anything the world has previously faced.

As UNEP’s new report points out, between 1998 and 2017, climate-related disasters accounted for 91 per cent of all recorded disasters, with floods being 43 per cent of these. In total, 2 billion people were affected, mostly in Asia and Africa.

This represents a dual challenge for infrastructure. In the future, extreme events are expected to have more severe impacts on infrastructure, creating serious problems for resilience and human safety. At the same time, decarbonising to reduce climate change can only be successful if the world makes the right infrastructure decisions now.

Grey-to-green Infrastructure
While the world looks to green infrastructure as a solution, we need to address the impact of ‘grey’ infrastructure. This is the infrastructure – existing or new-build – that locks-in carbon, biodiversity and pollution.

To move away from grey infrastructure like fossil-fuel burning power plants or roads that serve petrol-driven cars, we need to think about both new infrastructure and the refurbishment of what already exists. That is something the whole infrastructure sector needs to consider collectively, while also embedding sustainable approaches across the whole spectrum of infrastructure activity.

That means we need to see collective and sustainable approaches from the very first exploration of a new or retrofitting project, solution or idea at policy level. Then we need the same approaches through the financing process, procurement, design and engineering, and construction. And it doesn’t stop there. Completion, operation and even decommissioning all needs addressing too.

Engineers play a vital role in the design of infrastructure and so will play a key role in not only building new sustainable infrastructure but also in the refurbishment and resilience programmes that may need to be undertaken as a result of climate change.

How does that break down?
To ensure we deliver the solutions to meet the SDGs, it is important that engineers and experts are involved in the early thinking and development of policy and direction of investment.

Financial mechanisms will need to continue evolve to not just consider green solutions but make such solutions become the day-to-day norm. And we will increasingly need to look at solutions for projects that avoid any return to the current “business as usual”.

Procurement processes and contracts will need to continue to evolve and embrace greater sustainability in solutions and construction techniques will need to further improve to be more sustainable.

To make all of this happen, we need to connect better across the infrastructure sector which increasingly will need to include the eventual operators of the infrastructure and buildings. This is vital to ensure they are used as efficiently as possible throughout their lifetime, and we must think from the start about eventual decommissioning or reuse/repurposing so as to make that as effective a process as possible.

If we do that right, we will also need to incorporate more nature-based solutions so that they play an increasingly important role in infrastructure delivery, and we must connect to clients and the public to better explain the challenges and opportunities in meeting the sustainable development goals, but also in improving individuals’ quality of life.    

All of that will require a change in culture and education across the entire sector and a better understanding of the global and local tools available to us.  

Local and global solutions
It is well understood that design solutions can avoid impacts on biodiversity by applying strong and recognised standards and practices. There are a number of formal standards and sustainability initiatives that have made great progress in recent years and we should be educating more widely across the sector about the existence of such standards and tools.

These need to be applied to our way of working but we also need to develop solutions both locally and globally. Local approaches to sustainability are important as they reflect the specific the needs of communities and the impact of the environment in which they operate. At the same time though, harmonisation is invaluable when it allows us to bring best practice and new learning from around the world and apply it to improve any project.

In drawing on both local and global experience, we have an opportunity to exploit great pools of dedicated data to improve the design of any project, and to monitor the performance and sustainability of existing assets. And this in turn can support intelligent decision making – combining data with expertise and artificial intelligence to drive improvement.  

People and sustainable infrastructure  
Of course, discussion of infrastructure can often focus on such large-scale activities across the world and so the role of individuals goes overlooked. That must not happen if we want to achieve a genuine transition and deliver the SDGs.

For a start, there is the matter of skills and education. New standards and best practice within an industry can only work if those within industry are educated in how to deploy them. This is particularly important as roles in infrastructure delivery change to better reflect SDG objectives, and as the focus for policymaking and investment change too.

And then there are end users. The wider society affected by new infrastructure and the individuals who will use it, need to be helped to understand the nature of sustainable solutions. The benefit of pursuing such a path is that ultimately individuals hold the potential to significantly increase the speed of change as they start to demand such sustainable solutions. Helping to drive up that understanding and demand for sustainable infrastructure is not a role only for engineers, but engineers can and must play a big part as trusted educators.