Infrastructure Australia’s new roadmap includes a wide range of calls to action on sustainability, but without government action remains an exercise in “wouldn’t it be nice”. 

The concept of sustainable infrastructure is central to the plan’s recommendations, including increasing energy efficiency and renewable generation, and for the first time, included is a section on waste management and a circular economy.

It also prioritises reform in the most emissions-intensive infrastructure sectors, such as transport and energy generation.

It identified electricity as doing most of the heavy lifting in reducing infrastructure emissions overall, while transport was the “laggard” as emissions increased with more car use during covid.

Infrastructure buildings, such as hospitals, schools, airports and so on, also have a key role to play in decarbonising the sector overall, with vast opportunities in the “low hanging fruit” areas of energy efficiency and materials selection.  

A recommendation is also included to evolve the National Construction Code in order to give more consideration to social housing and improve the standard of existing dwellings which is currently “inadequate”.

However, the power of Infrastructure Australia is limited to providing research and advice, with ultimately the decision to act on recommendations relying on various levels of government.

“While the Australian Government will respond to the 2021 Plan, many of the actions across water, transport, energy, waste and social infrastructure require action from state and territory or local government,” Infrastructure Australia chief executive, Romilly Madew said.

The construction and operation of infrastructure assets across transport, energy, water, waste and communications directly contribute to around 15 per cent of Australia’s total annual emissions, according to Monash University-based research group, ClimateWorks.

Infrastructure Australia’s plan makes clear that many of the large-scale assets being built today will play a major part in Australia achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Despite the clear need for action, in the past Infrastructure Australia’s advice has gone unheeded. For instance the organisation found that since 2017, no infrastructure project assessed by them had applied their guidance on climate resilience.

Chief of policy and research at Infrastructure Australia, Peter Colacino told The Fifth Estate, his organisation was limited by the legislation it operated under, but also “unencumbered” by political thinking that some governments may take. 

“We provide advice and it’s for government to adopt or not,” Mr Colacino explained. 

Infrastructure Victoria, which recently released its set of recommendations and has high hopes for takeup of its work, says that in 2016 the Victorian state government adopted around 90 per cent of recommendations.

The federal government is required to deliver a formal response to the plan, which is expected to take around a year.

How to ensure advice translates to impact

Mr Colacino said breaking the report down into 29 recommendations helped maintain focus, while designating 151 specific “change agents” across various departments placed onus on those with the power to act. 

The agency has strengthened pressure to embed “quadruple-bottom line” thinking into decision making, as well as including it in their own assessments of projects.

Similar to the already widely adopted ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles, the new plan introduces a fourth prong – economic.

Ainsley Simpson, chief executive of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council Australia said creating a more nationalised basis on which to judge projects was a much-needed development.

“I think that what the Australian infrastructure plan is doing is calling for more national consistency,” she said.

Overall, Ms Simpson was positive about the approach of the plan and welcomed sustainability being defined in terms of the benefits it delivers.

“It’s great to see that sustainability and resilience are our strategic priorities. That’s a big difference and a vast improvement on where we were when the last plan was released in 2015.”

Infrastructure Victoria’s efforts to include more rigorous and definitive sustainability requirements for projects to be given approval include introducing mandatory standards.

Mr Colacino pointed out that both his own organisation and Victoria’s were limited in their scope to providing advice only, although recommendation 2.2.1 was directly aimed at embedding sustainability considerations in all projects.

“As far as the Infrastructure Victoria recommendation, they’re in no position to [mandate actions] or not, they’re in the same position as us. I’d say we have an equally strong recommendation. I’d like to think stronger,” he said.

Recommendation 2.2.1 states, “achieve consistency and shared ownership through embedding the quadruple-bottom-line into infrastructure decision-making frameworks”.

This includes meeting Australia’s net zero targets.

“All governments should support infrastructure planning for reduced emissions through long term, sector-specific plans,” the report states.

“Emissions targets and minimum performance standards should both be applied for new and existing infrastructure assets.”

To further encourage uptake of the recommendations in Infrastructure Australia’s plan, an implementation pathway document was created breaking the 29 recommendations, into over around 300 “enabling actions” linked to a time period and one or more organisations best placed for the task.

“So we’ve talked about where and when the action should occur and who should do it,” Mr Colacino said.

“It’s the proponents of infrastructure proposals – generally state and territory governments, and the Australian government – who ultimately make funding decisions; it’s their responsibility in order to ensure that advice is applied.”

Ms Simpson appealed to those change agents identified in the Infrastructure Australia plan to tie their decision-making regarding funding to whether positive outcomes can demonstrably be achieved.

“If we’re going to deliver this kind of intergenerational impact, then we need to make sure that we’re investing it in the right way,” she said.

“So funding projects on the basis that they will deliver those outcomes, which is called out in the plan, that embedding sustainability at the earliest possible stage starts to become common practice.”

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