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Why climate change and sustainability are fundamental to every project manager’s work. By Ben Hargreaves

Can project managers save the planet? The last few months have seen some industry leaders call for the profession to engage with the sustainability agenda, and the wider, but related, issues of global warming and climate change. For each mega-project, there may now be an environmental agenda as pertinent as the delivery of the scheme itself. Should ‘sustainable’ be a key metric, alongside delivering on time, on budget and to the requisite quality? In short, is it time for the profession to embrace sustainability and help combat climate change?

Dr Murray Simpson, director of climate, resilience and sustainability at project, engineering and technical services organisation Wood Group, believes so. Wood Group is currently working on environmental impact assessments for three airports in the UK. Dr Simpson says that, even if project managers are not naturally inclined to consider the environment, regulations are making it increasingly necessary for them to do so: “It is becoming more important. Climate considerations, sustainability and resilience are becoming part of a mandatory approach.”

Environmental impact assessments in the EU must include a climate analysis covering not only the project’s effect on the environment, but also how climate change might affect the project. “No one wants overly arduous regulations,” Dr Simpson acknowledges. “But we welcome regulation that ensures sustainability, climate and resilience are accounted for.”

And it is not only airports where this has become an issue. “It’s important in construction, housing, forestry – all sorts of areas,” Dr Simpson adds.

Call to action

The debate on the role project management should play in tackling climate change has been fired up in recent months by Professor Peter Morris, emeritus professor of construction and project management at University College London. Professor Morris published a report, Climate Change and What the Project Management Profession Should be Doing About It – a UK Perspective, with APM in 2017.

He tells Project he became interested in climate change when researching the challenges of future cities six years ago.

“I was exposed to the consequences of climate change and what it means for buildings, industry, fisheries and agriculture. I was horrified to see the changes coming down the line because of climate change. Shortly after, I was at a conference on project management. It struck me how everything we had been discussing was about the means to an end. It wasn’t about how we can do better.

“That can’t be right. We shouldn’t just be thinking about work breakdown structures, scheduling or cost control, or any of the tools and techniques that typically comprise the discipline of project management, without thinking about why we are doing what we are doing and how we can improve the environment. I don’t think sustainable development is adequately thought-through – or even internalised – by many organisations.”

Mega-projects that might help to safeguard the environment for future generations include the development of new power stations – whether nuclear or those producing renewable energy. Although Professor Morris is sceptical of the chances of Hinkley Point C – Britain’s first new nuclear power station since Sizewell B – being completed on time and to budget, he regards the area of clean energy as one where project managers are in a prime position to make a difference.

“The place where we can expect to make an impact is energy production, whether that is renewable energy or nuclear,” he says. “The emphasis of project management should be to build low-carbon power generation facilities. We should build these facilities on time and ensure they are not expensive.”

Dr Simpson argues that there is a responsible approach to sustainability and climate change for engineers and project managers: “At every stage of the asset life cycle – from concept, design and commissioning to engineering, procurement, construction and eventual remediation – climate, sustainability and resilience issues should be integrated.”

These include tools and techniques to make infrastructure resilient to the impact of climate change, such as flooding. Wood Group has been involved in a project in Paris to develop a flood expansion-zone decision-making tool that uses the latest geospatial data, and information from agencies around Paris responsible for the River Seine catchment area and basin, to identify areas subject to flooding. The aim is to safeguard urban areas, take appropriate action to adapt the environment to flooding in the future and protect the livelihoods of those in affected areas.

Social sustainability

In fact, along with the environment, economic and social sustainability are important areas where project managers can make a difference. Brendan D’Cruz is project manager at Newport City Homes and a consultant who also works as APM Project Professional Qualification chief examiner. D’Cruz has been volunteering as project manager on a community programme in Wales – Invest Local Ynysowen – that is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and managed via the Building Communities Trust. The £1m programme, one of 13 similar schemes in Wales, counts social sustainability as a key condition, along with community involvement. D’Cruz is two years into the 10-year project, which is focused on regeneration.

The project has marked a departure from the typical ‘bidding culture’ one might see for lottery funding, he says, with the aim of engaging the local community as much as possible.

“When you get the community involved in a programme of this magnitude, it can be difficult to get engagement,” says D’Cruz. “These are deprived communities; they are sceptical of anyone spending £1m locally. So we have brought in local stakeholders and influencers and got them involved. There is a lot of activity based on communications too.”

The aim has been to find out what the community’s priorities are, and then allocate funding to the most appropriate local projects. These are in areas such as youth services and building infrastructure that will be used long term.

D’Cruz says: “We are focusing on things that will make a difference after the funding has gone. Sustainability is a key part of it. If you do a project, or create or provide something, and people don’t use it, then it is a waste of time, money and effort. If people are involved in the change, and are actually engaged and consulted as you are delivering, it is more likely to be accepted and deliver the benefits you want.”

Further afield, project manager Mark Reeson has recently established a project management office known as the Project Coordination and Planning Centre in Eastern Amana, Saudi Arabia. Economic and social sustainability have been important factors in the development of the office, he says.

“Because of fragmented project delivery and planning for the last 30 years, growth in the region has been sparse and lacking future potential. This project and the new department have given the province an opportunity to change that – to make a long-term difference for the cities in the region and their citizens.”

The project enables a new way of collaborating between the private sector and the Saudi government to deliver improved, more efficient urban planning as part of Saudi Vision 2030, through which the government seeks to offer greater opportunity and an improved quality of life. The plan is to move away from being an ‘oil-centric’ nation to one that embraces clean energy, and in which the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Medina and Mecca become smart cities.

“This process of change has people as its focus, not just innovation and technology,” explains Reeson. He is now working on the development of the Saudi smart cities via a scheme known as the Community Smart Programme, which aligns social sustainability with development. “Saudi Arabia has an opportunity to progress in a new direction, and recognising the importance of social sustainability plays a key part in the wider sustainability vision,” Reeson says.

Project management has a huge role to play in the future development and design of sustainability, balancing the needs of a city, the community and the environment. Reeson adds: “For too long, sustainability and project management were seen as separate partners. But they are so much more.”

D’Cruz agrees that sustainability should be a key consideration for today’s project manager: “I see it as the top part of the pyramid.” He was also involved in the London 2012 Olympic Games and its subsequent legacy.

“Sustainability was a key part of the Olympics,” he says. “If the legacy was not delivered, then the other three aspects – cost, time and quality – did not matter. Sustainability can be another constraint – if you want it to be. It should be a key part of the mindset of project managers.”

Willing and able?

APM vice president Tom Taylor, founding partner of Buro Four, has been working with Professor Morris in an effort to increase the engagement of the profession with climate change. He says there is a generational difference at work when it comes to project management and consideration of the environment.

“These days, if you are under 40, or certainly under 30, you are likely to have been involved in learning about the moral and technical aspects of the planet – the environment, waste, recycling, etc – at all levels of education. The younger person’s awareness and expertise must not be under-appreciated and should be implemented.” Taylor’s generation learnt different lessons, concerning post-war austerity and frugality, that are also valuable today, he says.

Does he think the project management profession will engage with climate change? “I am hopeful it will be willing and able to bring about change, with an increasingly ethical approach and professionalism on such matters, not just by individuals, but by organisations and teams, across their projects, programmes and portfolios.”

Where PM comes in

Which aspects of project management are relevant to dealing with climate change? All of them, according to Professor Morris’s report. Sustainability and climate change measures should be identified as part of project planning. Project managers should show how the project’s requirements for climate change fit with these targets. Stakeholders – including legislators, financiers, authorising bodies, unions, citizens and more – should be identified and influenced. Planning – the most basic of project management techniques – needs to be started as early as possible in projects that tackle climate change. Measurable benefits should be identified. Are the project teams high performing? Is leadership being exhibited where and as necessary? Is it clear what to do if it isn’t?

Further reading

Download Professor Morris’s report on climate change and project management at

Ben Hargreaves is editor of Project


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