Doug Harland: “Introducing sustainability practices to infrastructure has the potential to impact on so many areas, from procurement, to employment, to construction. It could make a massive difference”

30 July 2009 – The concept of green buildings is pretty much an accepted notion these days but what about sustainable infrastructure? Considering the bulk of the Federal Government’s current economic stimulus spending is going into infrastructure projects, it would be logical to assume that there are uniform sustainability standards and protocols in place across the infrastructure development chain. Not so, points out CEO of the Australian Green Infrastructure Council (AGIC), Doug Harland.

It is a situation that the newly formed non-profit organisation is determined to change, Harland told TFE in an interview this week.

Officially established in May 2008, The AGIC was born out of a meeting of engineers concerned that there was no sustainable rating standard for infrastructure. A follow-up meeting calling for interest attracted 80 people, who then formed the steering group for the AGIC.

A year down the track the group has garnered considerable industry and political clout and is pushing for funding to formulate a rating scheme for sustainable practices across the infrastructure chain, from procurement through to construction. It is expected to establish sustainability performance benchmarks and reward infrastructure projects and organisations that achieved high outcomes against these benchmarks.

Once established, the rating scheme is expected to operate in a similar way to the Green building Council of Australia’s rating scheme for buildings, establishing sustainability performance benchmarks and rewarding infrastructure projects and organisations that achieve high outcomes against these benchmarks.

“We have the full support of the GBCA and our rating scheme is complementary to theirs. Once we’re up and running the whole built environment will be covered in terms of sustainability ratings and standards,” says Harlnd.

The AGIC Rating Scheme covers the development process for a range of infrastructure projects including:

· Roads, rail, bridges and tunnels

· Ports, wharves or boating

· Airport airside facilities

· Distribution grids (pipes, poles, wires)

· Water or resource management

· Water infrastructure

· Waterway or foreshore management

· Preparatory civil works for other types

There are seven major categories covered by the ratings tool. These include

  • project management and governance
  • economic performance
  • use of resources
  • emissions, pollution and waste
  • biodiversity
  • protection of people and place in the community
  • welfare of the workforce.

Within these seven categories there are a further 27 sub-categories. In February AGIC called for expressions of interest for authoring of the material for each of these sub-categories. Of these submissions 24 have been selected and now funding is being sought to put the scheme into practice.

AGIC estimates it will cost $1.25 million to implement the ratings scheme, with $600,000 from the Federal Government and the rest contributed from the states. A very small amount when you look at how much is being spent on infrastructure, says Harland.

“We haven’t got across the line in terms of funding yet but we have considerable support, including a letter of support from Peter Garrett,” says Harland.

Sponsorship has come in from the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, which is also authoring the sub section on climate change vulnerability, and from the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, which has joined AGIC as a Foundation Member.

The business community is also getting behind the scheme, while superannuation fund providers have expressed interest in using the protocols included in the ratings scheme to help them assess sustainable investments.

Many organisations are already using the 27 sub-categories to ensure sustainable practices are entrenched in their businesses, says Harland.

“They are using it in their own way across their organisations. Leightons in Queensland, for example, are putting the scheme into practice. What they’re all crying out for is an analytical tool they can apply uniformly.”

Rail system crying out for overhaul

Harland believes the current spending on infrastructure by the Federal Government has the potential to not only boost the economy but to build a more efficient platform for Australia to compete in the future.

Where he would like to see even more emphasis is in rail development.

“At present only six per cent of the freight load between Brisbane and Melbourne is going by rail. This needs to be increased to 80 per cent – the environmental and social cost of the enormous number of freight trucks on the roads is far too high.

“The current rail system is 80 to 100 years old. It is not just the actual infrastructure that needs to be updated, there are also communications issues between trains and throughout the system. This slows the whole rail network down with trains having to wait too long at signals because they lack communication technology to actually talk to each other. “

According to Harland, government is currently looking at both these areas – infrastructure upgrades and installation of new communications technology for rail. But the spend will have to be much higher than it is currently.

“The government does recognise the need for spending on rail but most rail spending at the moment is just on upgrades of existing infrastructure. It will need much more in the form of incremental spending,” says Harland.

One area in which AGIC is active is the factoring in of climate change to infrastructure planning. This is already happening in the upgrading of ports around Australia, says Harland.

“The current thinking by most government departments is that sea levels are going to rise by one metre. But so much is happening [in terms of climate change] so quickly that it is difficult for governments to keep up.

“We’re working closely with infrastructure providers and government to feed information back in so that planning does happen. Our role is about looking at where we need to be over the next decade,” says Harland.

Alliance projects, commonly used in the oil and gas industries are increasingly used in road and rail projects. They are expected to expedite projects and avoid lengthy litigation. Photo: Tasman Miller

Sustainable thinking just common sense

The current overhaul by the states of processes governing “alliance projects” between government and private operators, where government shares the risks on high risk infrastructure projects, is a welcome move, says Harland.

Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) have been more common arrangements in many of Australia’s large infrastructure projects, particularly roads. But there have been considerable controversy over some projects, such as Sydney’s Cross City tunnel, over the risks taken and cost blow-outs.

Alliances, commonly used in the oil and gas industries are expected to expedite projects and avoid lengthy litigation. They have been used on a number of road and rail projects in recent years, including Melbourne’s Citylink network and Railcorp’s five year upgrade of the rail network.

“A sustainable process is one where all people share the risk – alliances have more integrity as there are a lot of variables and unknowns in this business,” says Harland.

“It would also be good to get a uniform approach across the country so that there are not different rules in each state.”

Harland is optimistic that change is happening and that sustainability is here to stay as it is just “common sense.” In his own business experience this common sense approach to conserving resources and cutting costs saw a massive turnaround in the fortunes of the Toowoomba Foundry, now known as Toowoomba Metal Technologies.

While Harland was CEO at the manufacturing plant, a strategic overhaul of its processes, through engagement of all workers in the plant, saw turnover increase from $10 million to $40 million, emissions cut and water consumption reduced by 40 per cent over three years.

“This was all brought about by sustainable thinking and it is something that we could see happen across so many industries. With infrastructure we have the potential to impact on so many areas, from procurement, to employment, to construction. It could make a massive difference,” says Harland.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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