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9 criteria for sustainable infrastructure

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The complex definition of sustainable infrastructure

Sustainability. It’s everything. The planet has limits and we now realise that mindlessly pushing at those limits is not acceptable. So, it’s great that nowadays, when discussing construction, clothing and food, sustainability is often part of the conversation. But what about infrastructure? Roads, bridges, tunnels, cycle paths?
Riina Känkänen - Head of Sustainability at Ramboll Finland  and Chair of Infrastructure Committee in Green Building Council Finland reveals that sustainability in infrastructure is just as important, and wants more sustainable thinking included right from the beginning of infrastructure projects.
Riina sat down with the Urbanista to discuss sustainable infrastructure and the nine criteria her committee uses to define it.
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Who are you and what do you do?

- I’m Riina Känkänen, Head of Sustainability at Ramboll Finland: a global engineering, architecture and consultancy company operating across thirty-five countries. I’ve worked with sustainability for over fifteen years now.
With regard to the topic we’re talking about today, I’m also Chair of the Infrastructure Committee of the Green Building Council of Finland. This is a non-profit association of sustainable built environment with the target of making the built environment a central part of solutions to sustainability.

Is this a global organisation?

- Yes. The World Green Building Council is a global non-profit, and they have local associations in many countries.

What do we mean exactly when we say sustainable infrastructure?

- This was something interesting that was discussed five years ago in Green Building Finland when we started a new infrastructure committee. We started with the question, ‘what is sustainable infrastructure all about, what aspects and things can you say are behind promoting sustainable infrastructure?
So, as a committee we created a definition and based it on nine main criteria, but it is divided to cover social, economic and ecological sustainability. These three pillars of sustainability are covered in the definition. It’s very important to look at it from these three perspectives.'

Maybe many people think of the economic perspective. Development is a key part of boosting an area’s economy. But these other perspectives are also important.

- That’s correct. I think that we haven’t paid so much attention to this. Perhaps we often take the view that building infrastructure enables something in a built environment, like energy, mobility, logistics. This can be seen also in the latest research where we have calculated how much carbon emissions are caused yearly when building infrastructure in Finland. Of course, if you calculate the yearly emissions you need to have a definition of what infrastructure is all about. What do we consider ‘infrastructure’? This research showed that those emissions are annually 58% higher than that what we thought. The definitions of what we consider ‘infrastructure’ were a lot broader than we thought. Surprisingly, the yearly emissions for building new infrastructure in Finland is at the same level of building new buildings. We had previously thought that building new buildings was the largest cause of emissions, but this showed that it is the same amount. So new infrastructure is a very important part of the building environment.

Let’s look at the ecological sustainability of infrastructure. This is composed of three main things: mitigation of climate change and adaptation, resource wisdom and the circular economy, and third, biodiversity and reduction of environmental harm. Can you explain these a bit further?

- Maybe we can start with the idea that ecological sustainability aims to find the balance between human society and nature. As we learn about the planet’s limits, we realise that we are using our natural resources more that the planet can support. The construction sector is a very intensive raw material user and the raw materials have been found to be a significant threat to limiting global warming to less than two degrees. And the same applies to stopping the loss of biodiversity. These three main criteria in sustainability are strongly linked together and the main common factor of these three is the use of natural resources and materials. In this way, resource efficiency is a crucial part. Ecological sustainability in  infrastructure raises the question, how can we use and develop the current environment and infrastructure, and also the question, how long can we afford to build ‘new’ if our society has to consider the current limits and carrying capacity of the planet?
This is the main aspect we are considering. We can ask what materials we are actually using there. Is there the possibility to decrease the use of materials and instead use circular materials instead.

What are the criteria we should consider when choosing between one material and another?

- I would take one step back here and take a look at the master planning, or general planning phase, where we ask, should we develop the current ‘line’ or infrastructure or should we construct a completely new line, for example in the middle of the forest? Then we consider factors such as how much journey time is reduced, cost, investment, etc. In those stages we are not considering the ecological aspects. How much will this land-use demand and need resources? How much will it reduce biodiversity? Etc. These are some of the big questions to look at before we even consider which material to use. When you choose the place to build you also have the impact of the amount and type of material you will need. That affects how much concrete, bridges or tunnels we will need.
In summary, when you have a line on the map and you are considering different alternatives, this is the place to first consider the environmental impacts.

How about when we are renovating infrastructure? How do we consider the ecological impact then?

- Of course, we should begin by trying to renovate existing infrastructure instead of building new, but the problem is that a large part of the infrastructure in Europe is already old and ageing and the increase in traffic volumes have started to affect this situation. We need to build good connections for public transportation, but it might be the case that our bridges are so old that we can’t utilise the current infrastructure. We have to ask if it is really possible to renovate.
In cities we need to renovate because building new is difficult. And every time we renovate, we can ask the questions, do we have the technical systems there or could we have more? For example, when circulating water in cities, could we use nature-based systems to do that. When we are renovating, we also have the opportunity to change.

Do you think there is a conflict of interests when making these ecological decisions?

- Interestingly we have noticed that resource efficiency and solutions that promote the circular economy are reducing costs. The solutions and materials choices might be economically good decisions. They go hand in hand and maybe we haven’t realised this connection. We tend to think that low-carbon solutions and sustainable alternatives are more expensive, but in the infrastructure area this is not the case.

How about the consideration of users’ needs. This may sound obvious, but how do we determine this?

- The human side is really brought out by these criteria. The users, and not only the users, but also those that benefit from the infrastructure and future users are considered. We should always consider, who does the infrastructure serve and whose needs does it meet? If we are building a new highway, or a walking or cycling route, whose needs does it meet?
We also have different kinds of user groups, so it’s important to consider that. Accessibility is very important. Security also is important which ties into the children’s perspective. Are children comfortable with it? Then health, comfort and aesthetics. How does it look? These are all perspectives we need to consider.
The effects on people are considered locally, but should also consider global impacts on people. Think about the labour conditions and human rights. This can be something very difficult to evaluate. Finally, the long-term impacts. What kind of future needs do users have?

We have talked before on this podcast about the effect on people of the visual impact of infrastructure and the used on greenery. Can you tell us more about that?

- Finland is often considered a green and blue country, because of its forests and its lakes. But when it comes to urban environments, I think it can be greener and bluer. This relates to the infrastructure, but also to ecological compensation. When we build, we lose nature, we lose natural resources and nowadays ecological compensation is legislated and means that harm caused to nature is defined and compensated. This is very important. Currently the legislation is not mandatory. It will take time before actors and organisations start to think what it means to them and ask; how can we reduce the harm we are causing?

To what extent are the different actors in the construction industry collaborating to improve environmental issues?

- This is key. In the construction industry people tend to do things the way they always have. What we should do is engage a diverse group of expertise from different sectors as early as possible, at the stage when we only have the line on the map. Let’s discuss with health experts, biologists, and so on. The project leaders’ decisions should reflect this expertise. How we are leading the project and who we are including are key.

Let’s look at the economic sustainability perspective. Technical functionality is part of this.

- Technical functionality has been a main driver in terms of what we consider to be important and what we take care of most. It’s important this functionality, which has an impact on infrastructure service life and life cycle impacts and there is a need make sure of maintainability, repairability and most of all flexibility, who does it serve, etc. This is a very important aspect, but it can’t be the only driver for decisions.

Why does this traditional way of looking at things still dominate? Why are the other aspects often forgotten?

- First of all, we could include these other aspects. For example, when we build a new highway, CO2 emissions are not considered in the impact assessment. We only consider what happens when the road or highway is already there, serving traffic. We are not taking into account the emissions caused to build that highway. Also, the consideration of the loss of biodiversity. If we are losing ecosystems, and causing harm to nature, that is another cost not considered.

What do we need to do for all aspects to be included in these assessments?

- I think this is connected to our values. If we don’t value sustainability, it doesn’t exist. We are only seeing things and investments in monetary value. We can’t put monetary value on nature or emissions. So, we need mandatory values for them.
Some things might be very difficult to value, for example those related to quality. How do you put a value on aesthetics for example? But it’s very important.
This is one of the reasons that we created a framework for sustainability. Even if we can’t place a monetary value on some aspects, we are still saying that it is important. We have this checklist or framework saying that these are important factors to consider. We want a holistic approach not based on just one perspective.

How about life cycle impacts. Can you tell us more about that?

- While we understand that the life cycle perspective is very important while making decisions, when we are calculating costs of building a new infrastructure, we are still only including the building costs. So, maintenance, reparability, effects of conversion flexibility are not included. Life cycle costing and life cycle inventory are far from being part of the decisions that we are making. And the life cycle perspective is very important in bringing in experts to the team to help that the designs are for something easy to maintain and repair, which again relates to the holistic thinking.
Another important consideration is the use of data. What kind of data we produce whilst we design and build. If we want to drive circularity, the project should be able to automatically collect and produce data related to raw materials produced and the resources, production, and recycling potential, for example. The life cycle perspective also means collecting data that will help with the end phases of the project.

If we think about the three main areas of sustainable development: Ecological, social, and economic. If we do things right, what are we aiming for and when can we expect to see positive results?’

- In terms of when, then we can already see this guiding framework being used as a checklist, a guideline, and it’s also some kind of simplification of 3M infrastructure assessment criteria, which is a certification for infrastructure projects. This is a simplification we can follow already today.
Sustainability is about finding the balance, holistically, between all of these criteria, so we are no longer making decisions based on only one criteria.

Are we getting closer to government goals of net zero?

- It depends on the sector you are looking at. The infrastructure sector is one where carbon reductions can be made quite easily, using resources more widely, low carbon solutions, etc. These possibilities exist so we can start and choose already today that every project, building, and element are viewed in this way. We need to look with an open mind to understand which new and different benefits each element could provide. Could a bridge contain a battery, or be part of a new ecological link, or could we fix more carbon in the structure? We need to see those possibilities for reducing harm and doing good.

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

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