Infrastructure projects and related activities influence approximately 70 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new industry paper. create caught up with the authors to find out how engineers can be part of the solution.
In spite of the significant emissions associated with infrastructure such as roads and electricity assets, there is not yet a consistent process for incorporating net-zero emissions into their construction, operation and use.
“We’re only now starting to identify how large the gap is between business-as-usual and the opportunities to eliminate emissions across the life of infrastructure projects,” said Paul Davies, Head of Market Capability at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA).
To drive action on this front, ISCA has partnered with ClimateWorks Australia and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) to produce a discussion paper titled Reshaping Infrastructure for a Net Emissions Future – published 4 March.
Davies said engineers will play a significant part in finding solutions.
“The diversity of engineering disciplines means they can contribute to a net-zero future right across the whole infrastructure lifecycle – a unique position not available to other professions,” Davies told create.
Construction is just the beginning
ClimateWorks Australia estimates that construction and operation of communications, water, energy, waste and transport infrastructure directly contribute about 15 per cent of national emissions each year. A further 55 per cent are associated with infrastructure use.
Michael Li, ClimateWorks Australia’s Senior Project Manager Cities and Policy, stressed that in order to make a meaningful impact in coming decades, planning and assessment processes for today’s infrastructure need to reduce emissions in line with net-zero emissions targets.
“Infrastructure assets that are built today will still be operating in 2050, by which time all Australian states and territories have committed or aspire to reach net-zero emissions,” he explained.
Davies said that engineers can contribute by identifying opportunities to reduce embodied carbon in materials, using less materials in construction, and ensuring construction waste is eliminated, reduced or recycled.
To reduce the operational emissions of infrastructure assets, engineers can specify practices, products and materials that extend the lifespan of components, reduce maintenance and replacement, and make provision for reuse or recycling at their end of life.
The profession also has a role to play in ensuring infrastructure assets maintain their value as the economy transitions to net-zero, Davies added.
“Engineers can enable assets to be more adaptable to changing user needs, new technology and evolving policy environments,” he explained.
Climate change mitigation and resilience
Infrastructure Australia’s 2020 Infrastructure Priority List, released last week, flagged climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience as key focus areas for future projects and initiatives – something that was driven home by this summer’s bushfires and floods.
“Infrastructure built today needs to be resilient to climate change and designed to support the transition to net-zero emissions,” Li said.
Davies added that some infrastructure is already being designed to anticipate and respond to the effects of climate change, including parts of the Sydney Metro project.
According to Li, engineers can contribute by developing infrastructure assets that can respond and adapt to possible future scenarios.
“For example, the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan identifies strategic infrastructure needs such as transmission lines in response to both climate change impacts and a variety of emissions reduction policies,” he said.
In the coming months, ISCA, ClimateWorks and ASBEC will engage with infrastructure bodies, construction companies, governments, investors and other stakeholders to canvas their views on the opportunities, challenges and priority actions to transition the infrastructure sector to net-zero.
Li and Davies encouraged engineers to participate in the consultation process. Engineers Australia was engaged as a stakeholder during the peer-review process for developing the discussion paper. The organisation has also expressed it will continue to contribute to ensure engineers and the profession are well-represented in any outcomes.
Li, who studied mechanical engineering and has a Masters in engineering for sustainable development, said the engineering profession has always been at the forefront of reshaping the way society works.
“As someone with an engineering background myself, I am excited about the role that engineers can play in reshaping infrastructure for a net zero emissions future,” he said.
To view the discussion paper, including information on how to contribute to the conversation, click below.