As focus on sustainable infrastructure rises, governments and developers are under pressure to create affordable transportation solutions that improve quality of life and protect the environment.
In the UK, the Campaign for Better Transportation is one of the organizations campaigning for change in the way transportation is conceived and delivered. Recently, KPMG’s Richard Threlfall, Global Head of Public Transport, sat down with the CEO of the Campaign for Better Transportation, Stephen Joseph OBE to talk about sustainability, infrastructure and the public interest.
Richard Threlfall (RT): We talk a lot about the sustainability of infrastructure but sustainability can mean different things to different people. What does it mean for the Campaign for Better Transport?
Stephen Joseph (SJ): I think there is general consensus now that development needs to be sustainable not only in the environmental sense but also in a much broader way: that it contributes to the needs of the population without compromising the interests of future generations. So that means not only respecting environmental limits, but more generally that it enhances lives for people and contributes broadly to the economy.
RT: Are we starting to see more focus on sustainable infrastructure in the wake of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN?
SJ: The Paris Agreement marks the first time the infrastructure sector has had a real framework to consider in relation to achieving climate change targets. Multilateral efforts that set realistic expectations and goals are always helpful. Similarly, on a national level, we’ve seen the UK Supreme Court rule that the country was not doing enough to meet European Air Quality objectives which has influenced a number of infrastructure investment decisions in the UK.
RT: Issues related to the environment, sustainability, air quality and transportation were certainly front and center in the recent election for the Mayor of the City of London. Has that type of political focus helped improve the appetite for sustainable infrastructure?
SJ: Certainly having candidates compete with each other to be more ‘green’ and more environmentally-focused gives a sense of where the public debate is now going. And I believe that politicians need to provide the type of leadership that is needed on these topics. But they need to provide leadership in terms of the types of outcomes they hope to achieve rather than handing over a pet project.
RT: Are you seeing your efforts translate into different approaches to infrastructure investment?
SJ: I think what we are seeing is greater emphasis being placed on understanding what infrastructure investments are trying to achieve. And what that translates into is questions about the types of demand we are experiencing and how we can meet that demand at a broader level. So it might be pricing strategies in the case of transport or creating packages of smaller measures rather than big projects to meet certain objectives. The point is that we are starting to think about options for meeting demand rather than simply saying “we need to build a new road” and then building a business case around it.
RT: Have developers, investors and promotors started to include sustainability considerations into their plans?
SJ: There are certainly some good examples of organizations that are making strong efforts. And we are starting to see infrastructure promoters push government to make sustainability more central to infrastructure development. We are also starting to see sustainability move up the agenda for not just infrastructure promotors but also for institutional investors who, naturally, take a longer-term view on these issues.
RT: Has the devolution of power in the UK to local and national governments helped drive the sustainably agenda?
SJ: Bringing the decision-making about transportation closer to home is certainly creating a stronger debate about the sustainability of infrastructure. Mayors are starting to talk seriously about air pollution and that is taking them in different directions than may have been the case had investment decisions been made centrally. At the end of the day, the breathability of air is a local issue so having responsibility for infrastructure more devolved could certainly deliver some benefits.
RT: From where we are today, do you ever see a point when your work will be done?
SJ: Look, we’ve come a long way from the 1980s when people lay in front of bulldozers at Twyford Downs to stop new roads being developed. Public consultation is much more common and I think the boundaries of the discussion shift back and forth and there are wins and losses. But I firmly believe that – in time – sustainability will be more and more at the heart of infrastructure and will become more mainstream for governments and regulators.
RT: What advice would you give governments, promoters and developers as they start to incorporate sustainability considerations into their decision-making?
SJ: The key is to engage early on at the strategic level to understand the broad base of options available to achieve your goals. And that means moving from a narrow ‘project based’ approach to one that instead looks at the portfolio of objectives and options. Ultimately, sustainable infrastructure is not going to be just something that is nice to have, it’s going to be central to the way we live.