What role does the infrastructure sector have in delivering sustainability/ESG impact?

The phrase sustainable development is used in so many contexts that it can become incredibly confusing at times. Two of the latest phrases to be used a lot are ‘sustainable living’ and ‘sustainable cities’. So, what do these actually mean?

One of the original definitions of sustainable development, the Brundtland definition[1] talks about ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is often summarized as ensuring everyone has the quality of life they deserve. I find this really useful in helping explain what sustainability really means and in particular when the phrases sustainable living and sustainable cities.

This concept of quality of life is also very evident when looking at the scope of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations[2]; and the 10 principles of One Planet Living[3].

Figure: UN Sustainable Development Goals; Source: https://digitalcommons.imsa.edu/unsdg_infographics/

However, when we look at the primary focus of organizations in delivering sustainable development, they are so often focused, understandably, on improving their sustainability performance. This often leads people to prioritize topics such as resource use, greenhouse gas emissions and maybe ecology and community around their sites.

Whilst it is important for infrastructure to have this same focus, it is one of the largest resource-using industries in the world, it clearly misses the wider impacts covered by the SDG’s many of which are issues that the infrastructure sector can have a major contribution to.

Infrastructure: energy, transport, communications, utilities etc. are all essential elements to delivering quality of life for every citizen (for instance – just think how your life would be impacted, if your water supply failed, or you had no safe transport network!). But how well do we actually consider these quality of life issues when planning, designing and constructing infrastructure assets? I would argue not well enough, simply because strategic project decision-making is so often more heavily influenced by political and fiscal policies that often means we don’t, or aren’t able to, deliver assets that can contribute as much as they should to the quality of life of the communities that the assets are serving. 

The Royal Charter for the Institution of Civil Engineers states: ‘…many important and public and private works and services in the United Kingdom and overseas which contribute to the wellbeing of mankind are dependent on Civil Engineers and call for a high degree of professional knowledge and judgment in making the best use of scarce resources in care for the environment and in the interests of public health and safety…’[4] This makes it very clear that at the centre of the role of a civil engineer is the need to consider quality of life.  Meaning it is of vital importance that civil engineers ensure their work is delivering solutions that will help communities live more sustainability.

It is fairly difficult to argue that sustainability is not relevant to infrastructure sector, if anything I would argue that it is more important than in any other sector because civil engineers have a duty to ensure the projects they deliver can contribute to a more-sustainable society. The Institution of Civil Engineers, with substantial input from industry created the CEEQUAL rating and certification scheme in 2003 as a framework to help civil engineers identify and integrate opportunities to deliver more sustainable infrastructure. BRE now owns CEEQUAL and operates it as part of the BREEAM family of schemes.

Ian Nicholson, Director CEEQUAL and Infrastructure


1 Brundtland, G ,1987, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

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