Making civil engineering projects more sustainable - Lessons learned from the Dutch infrastructure market

5 minutes read

In order to keep climate change below levels agreed under the Paris Agreement, all economic sectors need to adapt. Even a difficult to abate construction sector needs to set course for net-zero emissions. As in other sectors, this is not easy and requires changes to existing practices. Because one thing is certain. Maintaining existing practices also means maintaining existing emissions levels.

In this post I do not want to go into the many technological possibilities that are out there to reduce emissions in civil engineering projects. A good overview of possibilities and directions can be found in the reports of Mission Possible ‘reaching net-zero carbon emissions from harder-to-abate sectors by mid-century’. Instead I want to discuss why progress is slow and outline how the Dutch construction sector is trying to set course for net-zero emissions.

All civil engineering projects have in common that they require large volumes of materials (steel, concrete, asphalt, sand), that are transported and handled at the site, using heavy machinery and loads of fuel. Especially steel, concrete and asphalt are materials that come with ‘embedded carbon’, large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the production of these materials.

A specific characteristic of this sector is the focus on projects. Every project is unique, and, for the contractor, every next project is uncertain. Projects are developed and tendered by a principal with a fixed scope; and won by a contractor with a fixed price. A process that sets strict boundaries for the execution of the project.

The main hurdles to reduce emissions in construction projects are related to this focus and make implementing new practices a slow and time-consuming process. Here, I’ll discuss three of these hurdles.

The not-in-scope hurdle

Civil engineering projects are complex projects with long timelines and many different stakeholders. Projects go through several phases (definition, design, procurement, realization) involving many different people, internal and external. Managing these projects is a hell of a job, making sure that everybody involved keeps an eye on the ball. To the project manager everything within the scope of a project is important, everything outside of the scope is ‘noise’. Principals need to make sure that sustainability and CO2 reduction are part of the scope of a project, right from the start and also in every transition from phase to phase. Otherwise, sustainability is part of the ‘noise’.

The ‘proven solution’ hurdle

The contractors often create innovative solutions and are aware of new equipment, materials and methods. Principals, on the other hand, have a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude. Principals rely on proven solutions that have worked before and done the job. These get into the requirements for new projects, resulting in tenders that are often based on dated concepts and technology. Before new solutions can be accepted in a tendering procedure proof of reliance, lifetime expectancy and maintenance costs is required. Proof that can only be created by using new solutions in actual projects.

Therefore, principals need to allow for alternative solutions and provide room for experiments in their tenders, otherwise it is impossible for innovative solutions to get a foot in the door.

The ‘which alternative is better’ hurdle.

To make civil engineering projects more sustainable it must be possible to ‘measure’ improvement. How do you value very different environmental aspects such as CO2, air quality, biodiversity? Is a design with a shorter lifespan, but fully circular better than a design with a much longer lifespan?

Use of internationally accepted LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) methodology can provide answers to this kind of questions. However, the use of LCA data in design, procurement and realization of infrastructure does provide extra challenges to ease of use, availability of data, reliability and verification. Principals and contractors working in the construction sector need to develop common procedures to be able to make use of LCA data in civil engineering projects.

Green Deal in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands there is a ‘Green Deal sustainable infrastructure’ that provides tools and methods to address these hurdles. The active role of the principal is supported with several methods to address sustainability in a project. One tool supports identification of opportunities and priorities for sustainability among stakeholders in a specific project, another tool enables a brainstorm on ambitions and possible directions for more sustainable solutions. Using these tools early in a project has proven to be valuable. Many solutions and measures do not have to cost extra money, but require awareness and attention early on in a project, making sure they become part of the scope of the project.

As a common language, the software and data tool ‘DuboCalc’ has been introduced. It enables the calculation of an ‘environmental cost indicator’ for an infrastructural project or object, based on internationally accepted LCA methodology and data. It is used in the design phase to evaluate the environmental impact of different solutions. in a tender procedure it can be used to challenge contractors and compare bids. A lower impact results in a better chance of winning the tender.

The tools of the Green Deal are getting more and more traction in the Netherlands. They are used by large principals such as Rijkswaterstaat and ProRail, responsible for rail, highways, waterways and water safety in the Netherlands. The instruments are finding their way to other public principals, such as provinces and municipalities. The approach shows that it is possible to make this sector more sustainable, although progress does come slowly.

The author, Vincent Swinkels, conducted several consultancy projects helping to make the Dutch infrastructure sector more sustainable and less carbon intensive. Clients include large principals such as Rijkswaterstaat, ProRail and the Port of Rotterdam Port authority. He also works for the CO2 Performance Ladder, a CO2-management and procurement tool, that is also part of the Green Deal sustainable infrastructure.


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The concepts of circular economy and sustainable production and consumption imply an efficient use of natural resources, circling in loops across value chains and minimizing waste.

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Vincent Swinkels

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Vincent Swinkels

Specialised in combining in-depth insight in the interactions between policies and markets with passion for sustainability and a solid understanding of business and management issues.

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