Infographic by David Cheshire.

From ‘nice to haves’ to the mainstream

As environmental concerns become more mainstream and the circular economy continues to build momentum, the UK has the opportunity to become a leader in its application, says Robert Spencer.

Organisations in the infrastructure sector continue to show growing interest in sustainability and climate resilience when planning major developments and 2017 could see a rise in the number of innovative approaches being applied. Natural capital and circular economy principles that were once seen as ‘nice-to-haves’ are now starting to become more mainstream, with infrastructure owners recognising the business benefits that introducing these approaches can bring. 

This increasing awareness is partly a result of the Paris Agreement that was signed in December 2015, which created a common climate goal for the world through which to focus new technologies and ambition. It has also led to growing acknowledgement of the need to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. 

Savvy infrastructure providers are already taking steps through measures such as carbon pricing to address the challenge. Many operators, for example, now include carbon weighting in bids and are seeing it drive significant cost efficiencies. Most operators have incorporated carbon in their optioneering assessments for major investment decisions, either by providing a carbon budget as well as a cost budget, or by integrating a carbon price in the asset profile. 

With a strong UK pipeline of infrastructure projects, many schemes will be under increasing pressure from the local availability of construction materials. By taking a circular economy approach, assets and materials are kept at their highest value for as long as possible, helping to deliver real cost efficiencies. This year the first circular economy industry standard, BS 8001, will be published, providing a framework for implementing circular economy principles within organisations. 

Widespread adoption of circular economy principles in infrastructure will require innovative business system models and the new standard should guide organisations through the process. As the circular economy continues to build momentum, the UK has the opportunity to become a leader in its application. 

Natural capital is another approach that is gathering pace. Last year, the Natural Capital Protocol was launched with uptake from some of the world’s leading organisations. This year will see the publication of more specific guides to help businesses in different sectors incorporate natural capital into business planning and its application in infrastructure continues to grow. Next on the agenda, however, must be social capital. Social capital, which covers the benefits that sustainable measures can bring to the wider community, is proving more complex and difficult to quantify. 

There is evidence that demonstrates the considerable health benefits that natural capital and circular economy measures can bring, with air quality chief among these concerns at present. Social capital uptake will no doubt increase in 2017 and the infrastructure sector must take steps to account for its benefits as new schemes develop. How to buy social value will continue to be a question that will perplex infrastructure commissioners in the months ahead.

To push forward the application of approaches such as natural and social capital and the circular economy, infrastructure owners will need to work together to convert ideas into actions. Sharing best practice is key to aid widespread implementation across the sector. 

Robert Spencer is sustainability director at AECOM.

Click here to download the Natural Capital Protocol.