June 2015 archive

One Planet Consumption Challenge

I love this year’s World Environment Day slogan:

Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.

I love it because it captures so well what I believe is this century’s biggest challenge: providing for the wellbeing of up to 9 billion people within the finite resources of our planet.  We are currently consuming at 1.5 times Earth’s capacity, according to 2014 Living Planet Report.  And that is with only 7 billion people on the planet, 1.3 billion of which live in extreme poverty and thus are not particularly well and consume far less than their share of Earth’s capacity.

So, for those of us who have the luxury of making lifestyle choices – what can we do?

Buy less

This might not be on the first ‘eco action’ that comes to our mind as we are usually bombarded with messages about buying eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products.  But what about not buying at all?  Do you really need that new shirt / watch / phone / house?

I am a great believer in the ingenuity of the human race.  Nevertheless, I am not convinced that we can maintain our current levels of consumption and just innovate ourselves out of the One Planet consumption challenge.  The sooner we accept that we have to reduce our consumption, the sooner we can get to a One Planet lifestyle.  Of course, we are unlikely to hear this message from our favourite corporate brands or politicians.

If you are not one of the 4 million people who have watched The Story of Stuff, then I highly recommend you take a few minutes (21 to be exact) to do that:

The video is delivered in a  simple way but don’t let that fool you: its message is extremely powerful.  In fact, a whole movement has started on the back of this movie.  It illustrates why a product (or service) costs significantly more than the figure on the price tag.  Just because we are not currently paying the full price of ‘stuff’, does not mean the real cost will magically disappear.

Buying less (or minimalism as some choose to call it) will not only help us save the planet, but will also save us money and perhaps even allow us to work less and rest more.

If you really must buy, then please do look into eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products and services.  If you are having a problem finding such goods, then the way around that is to clearly (and politely) request them from your favourite stores.  Or start a business and provide them to yourselves and others!

Waste less

That is, waste less electricity, food, water, materials…even waste!  The resources to help us do this are all around us.

Heroes of the UAE is an award-winning campaign providing tips on energy and water efficiency for individuals, schools, and corporations.  I am sure we can each think of a few lifestyle changes we can make to be more efficient with energy and water, whether it is turning the A/C a few degrees up or not washing our cars every day.

Almost every major city in the region has a recycling program.  It might not be the most convenient or efficient, but that is not an excuse to ignore it.  There are also many charities which will accept used items, from clothes and books to furniture and electronics.  Who needs recycling when someone else can reuse?

Food waste is a big issue in the Gulf; it is typically around 40 – 50% of household waste, which is a much higher percentage than the global average.  For example, food waste forms less than 15% of municipal solid waste in the US.  As a refence  Given that agriculture globally accounts for 92% of the global water footprint, throwing food away is wasting both food and water.

Ramadan challenge

A friend of mine came up with this challenge a few years ago: a “Buy-nothing Ramadan”.  Check it out and if you decide to take it up please let me know how it goes.

May this Ramadan be a time of reflection, moderation, and consciousness for all – Ramadan Kareem!

On sustainable infrastructure

The first time I came across the topic, I was part of a team developing a sustainability framework for a mega transport project in the UAE.  While there were a number emerging local guidelines relating to sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods, there was a void when it came to local guidance on sustainability for infrastructure projects.  Nevertheless, the client had the foresight of introducing the requirement for a comprehensive sustainability framework from the early planning stages. I love a challenge and this was one I learnt a great deal from and thoroughly enjoyed.

Having gone through that project and a few more since then, below are some thoughts on ‘must-haves’ for sustainability frameworks related to infrastructure planning.  I have focused on areas that are of particular relevance to major infrastructure projects, and thus may be overlooked by professionals coming from other backgrounds.  However, that is not to say that the list is exhaustive or that other sustainability topics (e.g. energy, water, waste, materials) are not applicable to the infrastructure scope and scale.

Climate Change Adaptation

Unlike buildings, infrastructure projects are planned to have lifetimes of 50+ years (often 100+ years). Given that time frame, climate change adaptation is a topic which cannot be ignored, even from a pure risk management perspective.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) recognised this and took the bold step of including a credit on climate change adaptation in their IS rating tool released in 2012.

For the Middle East, and particularly the Gulf region, sea level rise, temperature rise, and drought-related water shortages are all risk-drivers to be considered carefully.  Once project-specific climate change risks have been identified, they can be addressed through introducing adaptation measures in the design, construction, and operational stages.  As usual, the key is starting early and planning for change from the outset.

Community impact

Due to their scale, infrastructure projects can be significantly disruptive to their surroundings, during both the construction and operational stages.  It is therefore essential to plan the project on the basis of avoiding and mitigating negative impacts on aspects such as the acoustic and visual environment, traffic, and connectivity.

It is critical to have a strict internal mechanism for checking compliance against sustainability goals and objectives, throughout the project lifetime.  For community impact, this can be undertaken through gathering live feedback from the neighbouring areas and taking action to address any issues which arise.  An environmental assessment at the planning stage can only go so far in predicting impacts, a reality check during construction and operation is necessary.

The CEEQUAL rating scheme includes a whole section focusing on People and Communities, providing useful guidance on aspects to be considered.

Road AD

Articulating the wider benefits

Major infrastructure projects are generally built to fulfil a social purpose, be it providing access to water and electricity or facilitating efficient movement of people and goods.  As such, infrastructure projects will likely have wide socio-economic benefits, many of which could be difficult to capture in a traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Nevertheless, it is important to at least identify these wider benefits, since they will be what justify the project when budgets are scrutinised, as they inevitably will be.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a methodology that has gained much attention over the past few years, and has helped organisations and projects assess value in its broadest sense.

Whether your infrastructure project is providing access to employment opportunities, improving health, saving time, reducing pollution, or promoting safety, these are all huge positive impacts that need to be clearly captured and then quantified if possible.

Final thoughts

Just because there does not yet exist a ‘ready-to-use’ infrastructure rating scheme for the Middle East does not mean we can afford to ignore sustainability on infrastructure projects.  I am aware of a few rating schemes being developed, and until they are released there is a growing body of international guidance and best practice from which to draw.

Major infrastructure projects cost a few orders of magnitude more than a typical building, and are built to last twice as long at least.  As such, it seems absurd not to invest some time and effort early on developing meaningful sustainability targets and embedding them into the project.  The returns are definitely worth it.