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How well do projects deliver on sustainability?

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In short; not very well so far. Carbon emissions are a crucial area of discussion for the sustainability of projects as we have better data on carbon than many other areas of sustainability, such as the human, social and biodiversity impacts. In many fields of project management, we lack good data, but construction is a project sector where better data is available. However, the trend is not looking favourable. Construction's total annual carbon output was 37% about 10Gt of CO2 in 2021 but the carbon output rose 5% compared to 2020 and 2% compared to pre-Pandemic 2019.  

While construction projects have reduced carbon, the industry’s growth outpaces the savings.

At this year’s SIG’s A Sustainable Future conference, we looked at the evidence between the breakdown of embedded carbon, carbon emitted from construction activities and the carbon generated using the assets. In particular, we looked at the project sectors of energy and transport and we found that the carbon emitted from using assets is multiple times higher than the carbon emissions directly controlled by projects. In the energy project sector, in the UK, it has de-carbonized dramatically and the annual use output is about 2x the construction output, while in the transport project sector, it’s lagging behind where the use of emissions is about 40x the construction emissions.

While at the conference, we had a great debate about the logical consequence: building nothing is better than building anything. Our discussion concluded with the idea; build nothing — use what we already have but make it better, which leads to some important questions for project managers. Some of these included questions such as, will our work change from supplying more capacity to managing demand and will engineering not only be technical, but social. Construction projects might look like organizational change projects in the future and the shift has important implications for the future capabilities of project managers and engineers.

The idea of 'building nothing is best for sustainability' created further questions of how this can be the right track for emerging economies. Societies with desperate needs for more infrastructure. Do we need to accept that, for example, new transport infrastructure appears first that emits carbon, or is leapfrogging the answer? What role does the UK play?

It emerged from our conversations that cost-benefit analysis dominates decision making. How do we counterbalance this very strong and powerful economic logic when carbon pricing is inadequate and other sustainability criteria like biodiversity impacts, social value or human value are difficult to quantify?

We concluded that, as project leaders, we need to think with more ands, not ors. For project leaders, the challenge is not cost efficiency or sustainability impact, the challenge is efficiency and impact. Also, we realised that our work will be measured on all the different types of value projects create, such as economic, environmental, social and human. We need to develop our capability to deal with conflicting choices.

Finally, we decided that the future challenge is efficiency of inputs plus effective outputs and outcomes/value combined with the legacy that our projects leave behind for future generations.


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