To make the construction sector more sustainable, 'governments must purchase sustainably' and companies must 'not be afraid to make mistakes'

In the construction and infrastructure sector more and more attention is paid to innovation and sustainability. Various companies have stated strong sustainability ambitions. Where does this come from? And more importantly: how can the sector really be made more sustainable? Various experts from the infrastructure sector share their insights.

“The construction sector is responsible for a significant part of the CO2 emissions in the Netherlands and worldwide. That alone is an important reason for the construction sector to become more sustainable,” says Esther Heijink. She has been involved in the sector for years as a senior sustainable infrastructure consultant at Arcadis. She compares this to an oil tanker that you have to get moving. "It may not be faster than ten years, because it is a cumbersome sector by nature." Gerwin Schweitzer, senior advisor on climate neutral and circular procurement at Rijkswaterstaat, agrees that change in a complex sector such as the construction and infrastructure sector takes time. For example, it can take up to ten years before an idea leads to production. But, he says: "If you want to be climate neutral by 2030, you have to do it faster."

Construction and infrastructure sector: large part of emissions

Buildings and construction are responsible for the annual emission of 3.4 megatons of greenhouse gases. For example, the construction and infrastructure sector is a major consumer of products with a major impact on the environment, such as cement, steel and asphalt. The machines the builders work with also emit greenhouse gases and remove a lot of waste from the construction site. “One in five cars on the road has something to do with construction,” says Gijs Termeer. He is director of the Climate Friendly Procurement and Business Foundation (SKAO), the organization behind the CO2 Performance Ladder. This is now the most widely used sustainability tool by clients in the infrastructure sector.

Governments have influence through purchasing

Termeer emphasizes that the Dutch government plays an important role in making the sector more sustainable, because 95 to 100 percent of all infrastructure is built on behalf of the government. This concerns parties such as Rijkswaterstaat, provinces, municipalities and water boards. Schweitzer, from Rijkswaterstaat, is aware of the opportunity as a government to initiate the transition to a climate-neutral and circular future through purchasing policy. "We see the expenditure we make on infrastructure as an opportunity to explicitly include sustainability."

The government parties will also get to work themselves, says policy advisor Henkjan van Meer of the Dutch Water Authorities. For example, some water authorities use the CO2 Performance Ladder to measure and reduce their own CO2 emissions. They also approach sustainability more often in an integrated manner, using the Sustainable Civil Engineering Approach as a working method. Within the flood protection program, for example, opportunities are identified for building with an eye for biodiversity. "They will be working on this in the coming years."

From tendering on price to collaboration with market parties

Sustainability is now firmly on the government's agenda, but that was not always the case. “When I started, tendering based on price was very normal,” Van Meer recalls. He started his career with the water authorities in 1997. Ten years later sustainable procurement was a fact. For example, Minister Jacqueline Cramer, of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, presented version 2.0 of the Sustainable Purchasing report in 2009.

In the initial phase of sustainable procurement, the government determined procurement criteria that products had to meet. That turned out not to be a success. “Those criteria were actually outdated when they were published,” says Termeer. Instead of imposing criteria on the market, it turned out to be better to work together with the market. And let market parties come up with the best innovations themselves.

The signing of the Green Deal Sustainable Civil Engineering in 2013 (and the subsequent Green Deal 2.0) by clients, contractors, knowledge institutions, suppliers and consultancies was an important step in that collaboration. “We agreed with each other to work with a joint set of instruments,” Schweitzer explains. In this way, market parties know what to expect from the government. "I think this has been the big gain of the past ten years: that we have laid a foundation with which we can now really continue."

In this area, other countries can learn something from the Netherlands. “In the Netherlands we are critical of procurement policy, but in many countries that is not even a policy issue,” says Termeer. And that while we spent 1.8 trillion euros on purchasing in Europe. That is approximately 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of Europe. Much of this is spent on infrastructure. Termeer is also proud of the 'flat polder model' of the Netherlands in which clients and contractors work together.

Still much to achieve

Despite the fact that the Dutch infrastructure sector is at the forefront internationally, there is still a lot of room for improvement. “We are actually still at the beginning of a very big transition,” says Heijink. She can name a few great successes such as the development of a circular viaduct, electric trucks and 3d printing, but the big steps are still to come. More is needed than technological and material-technical optimization. Policy and its implementation play an important role in this.

'It will really help us if the various authorities start asking more and more about sustainability' - Jil Ligterink, Dura Vermeer

Despite the fact that sustainable procurement has been on the government's agenda for ten years, it is not always applied. For example, Jil Ligterink of construction company Dura Vermeer (certified at level 5 of the CO2-Performace Ladder) points to figures from the Stichting Aanbestedingsinstituut Bouw & Infra. Last year, they calculated that 37 percent of all tenders included a sustainability aspect. “So in 63 percent of the tenders it was not yet relevant at all,” emphasizes Ligterink. A shame, he thinks. "It will really help us if the various authorities start asking more and more about sustainability, because then we can also respond better to it."

At the same time, Ligterink also sees a role for its own company in stimulating subcontractors and suppliers, so that they too come up with more sustainable products. Like the other interviewees, he finds sustainability important. "We measure the CO2 reduction in all our projects. And we have a target to reduce CO2 by 9 percent this year compared to 2017. We will also achieve that. For next year it is our intention to do that for 15 percent.” In ten years' time, Dura Vermeer wants to no longer emit any CO2 at all, which is in line with the mission of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management: to be climate neutral by 2030. A lot still needs to be done to achieve the ministry's goal, but Schweitzer is Hopeful. "In practice, more is possible than you think and it goes faster than we think." For that reason, he is also more positive about the feasibility of that ambition this year than he was a year ago.

No fear to make mistakes

There are also a number of lessons to be learned from the past. “Sustainability is also just doing things and that is something that we now have to work on,” says Ligterink, for example. Heijink agrees with that vision. Above all, she says we shouldn't be too afraid to make mistakes. “If you want to learn, develop and innovate, you will make mistakes,” she emphasizes. It is crucial that that space is created. “One shouldn't dwell on talking about it, but really just do it,” agrees Schweitzer.

According to Heijink, the sector is very risk-driven. This can be explained by the major social interests at stake, such as the road safety of roads and viaducts. Construction fraud in the past also played a role in this. "We've created a kind of claims culture." According to Heijink, things really have to change if the sector wants to innovate. "Working together in trust is essential if you want to become more sustainable."

This article previously appeared on Change Inc.