Part II: Reviewing TfNSW’s ‘Sustainable Design Guidelines’ from a life cycle perspective

life cycle thinkingLCA in transport infrastructure Part II: Edge puts TfNSW’s ‘Sustainable Design Guidelines’ through the life cycle test. You can read Part I here.

Transport for NSW (TfNSW) is committed to delivering transport services, projects, operations and programs in a sustainable manner that balances economic environmental and social issues.

The NSW Sustainable Design Guidelines (SDGs) aims to deliver a range of sustainability outcomes and initiatives to improve the sustainability performance of transport infrastructure and reinforce TfNSW’s ongoing commitment to sustainability.

TfNSW commissioned Edge to put its upcoming SDGs version 4.0 through a life cycle test. After careful review, a few things stood out:

  • The SDGs promote value engineering, creation of wider economic benefits and generation of negative externalities. Value can be achieved by optimised and improved urban design, sustainable procurement, low carbon construction, energy efficiency, adaptation to climate change, etc. (In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.)
  • If you don’t factor in the wider economic benefits and externalities (negative and positive) in the business case, you miss the opportunity to truly optimise and increase the value of the infrastructure project.
  • The SDGs can drive investments with substantial returns on investment to a range of beneficiaries – such as within construction (e.g. reduced energy costs), the users of the asset (e.g. reduced commute time), the local community (increased employment, reduced urban pollution) and the global community (reduced carbon pollution).
  • Life cycle thinking coupled with sustainability often challenges the business-as-usual approach to planning, design, construction and operations. Quantifying sustainability (that is, going from perception and opinion to fact) is crucial to inform design and to get buy-in from all decision-makers and influencers needed to make our infrastructure sustainable.

Positive change is more efficiently achieved when the initiatives can be evauated from a cost/benefit perspective, as well as from the environmental and social performance they deliver. There’s a ‘common currency’ that rates the life cycle worth of green products and it is called Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

A case for EPDs – where will we get the data and facts to assess and optimise on?

Data is at the heart of optimisation. Without data, you can only guess where you stand in terms of carbon footprint, energy use, social return on investment, etc. Imagine building a road without a financial budget and tracking cash flow? We need to be equally rigorous when it comes to our planet and people.

Thankfully, there is a proven and robust approach to develop and publish sustainability-related data – Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). This is the internationally standardised way to declare verified product sustainability information. It is also a handy solution for the new life cycle requirements in the updated version of the internationally adopted standard for environmental management systems (EMS), which organisations will soon need to adopt. More specifically ISO14025:2006 is the EPD standard and ISO14001:2015 is the new EMS standard.

EPDs can also be used in a broader framework for integrated building performance (see Figure 1 below). The EPD (EN15804 compliant – more specific for construction and building products than just ISO 14025) is primarily the product-level building block for environmental (and some aspects of social, economic, technical and functional performance) information.

The EPDs link up to form a complete building/asset level model. For example, Green Star uses the building level EN15978 standard for the whole building whole of life LCA credit. And it rewards EPDs – it’s a consistent and clever method. I’ll discuss how this can/should be used from a planning perspective top-down another time.

Figure 1: European Standardisation approach to integrated building performance.

What else are EPDs used for?

An EPD is the obvious place to start when you want to model and assess your planetary budget for a project. Additionally:

  • EPDs can be used to find a product/supplier who has the right environmental credentials for your project.
  • EPDs are the cornerstone of developers and builders’ sustainable procurement solutions.
  • EPDs can be a free way to score points under Green Star, LEED, BREEAM, IS Rating Tool, TfNSW Sustainable Design Guidelines, etc. Here’s a link to where you can find Australian and NZ EPDs for your project: Australasian EPD Programme.

In other words, EPDs are the key to moving from life cycle thinking as a concept to life cycle thinking as a practical solution.

So, how ambitious should we be?

How do we know when we can pat each other’s backs and say, “We did it! This high-speed rail line between Sydney and Melbourne is life cycle-optimised and sustainable.”?

I previously mentioned relevant and ambitious. A constant challenge for sustainability professionals is the question, when is ‘good’ good enough? Do we need to go zero carbon, zero waste, zero water, do no harm, restore endangered species, replant the Amazon, become vegan?

It’s satisfying to see Science Based Targets leading the way for how we need to think about carbon emissions and climate change (see: Tips for infrastructure projects in a Science Based Target world). I believe this framework should be developed and adopted as a complete package for sustainability. The Sustainable Development Goal mentioned in Part I (link) is also a step in the right direction for our organisations.

So I have 3 favours, if you don’t mind:

  • Next project – take a triple bottom line life cycle approach (contact us).
  • Next product – send the right signal to your market and choose a product with an EPD.
  • Next event – attend the upcoming ISCA conference, there will be plenty of TBL and life cycle thinking going on.
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