How to halve the carbon footprint of infrastructure – with Ian Blair and Brigitte Hicks

Design, engineering and environmental consultancy WSP has announced it will halve the carbon footprint of infrastructure designs and advice provided to clients by 2030. It’s a bold move and first for New Zealand as we move towards a net zero economy. So how will WSP do it? We talk to Managing Director Ian Blair and Sustainability Consultant Brigitte Hicks.  

What are the main influences behind your plan – why are you doing it?

Ian Blair Ian: We've been working on getting our house right first, making sure that we're behaving as an appropriately sustainable corporate, and we've done a good job of that. For example we’ve transitioned a lot of our vehicles to EVs, we’ve been working hard to decarbonise our offices, and we've moved to a new office in Hamilton which dramatically reduces our electricity usage.

But we can influence more broadly by helping our clients decarbonise. One of the big drivers for us is that we know we can help our clients – for example Auckland Transport, Auckland Council, Waka Kotahi, the Department of Corrections – these massive government entities – decarbonise through the design work we're doing and the advice we're providing.

We’ve got some great people here in New Zealand including some global experts, but we’ve also got the benefit of being able to tap into the work of the team in the UK and some of the work that's being done in the Nordics to help us move to what will ultimately be a net zero economy.

Is this something your clients are pushing for, or are you leading the charge?

Brigitte: We have a lot of clients who are really pushing for improvements in this area, for example Watercare has its 40:20:20 strategy which aims to reduce 40% of embodied carbon by 2024, and Waka Kotahi is working on new policy and guidelines for all projects to be driving this work as well.

So the target at WSP is really about mobilising our own business to be able to support them and the whole industry. Although it’s ambitious, it’s much bigger than us – it's going to require contractors and product manufacturers and everyone in the whole supply chain to work together.

Why is now the right time for WSP to start working towards the 2030 target?

Ian: COP26 highlighted the position the world is in now and what we're hearing from the world's leading climate scientists is we’ve got a really short time to turn this around. The next eight years are absolutely critical and we need to play our part.

While the actions we’ve been taking internally are good, they’re quite incremental so by having input into the assets we design, which will last for 50 to 100 years or more, that's a big leverage point for us.

As I often say, if not you then who, and if not now then when? So now is the right time.

How are you going to do it? What does the change look like?

Brigitte HicksBrigitte: There's going to be a lot happening and we’ll be moving at pace. We've put together a dedicated task force and we’re hiring a programme manager. We realise we need the resourcing and the people who can put the necessary time into it – we don’t want everyone to have to think about it on top of their current jobs.

We’re working on our road map and part of that will be setting a base case for our emissions, thinking about how big is the amount of carbon within our portfolio that we can influence so we can then think more strategically and focus on areas that are carbon intensive.

We'll need to roll out an upskilling and training programme for our people which will give them the tools and resources they need to drive a low carbon optioneering process and make decisions through a decarbonisation lens on projects.

A lot of the current big projects have sustainability teams but there’s been a gap for medium and smaller projects, so by working at a portfolio level we can put systems and processes in place for all our clients, no matter what size they are.

Do you have the right people in place at WSP in New Zealand or do you need to bring in specialists from overseas?

Ian: We’ve got 2,000 people in New Zealand including a great range of experts who are working on some of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, so we’re in a really good space. We’ve got scale and local knowledge which, combined with that additional global expertise, makes a powerful offering.

Brigitte: Our teams in the UK, Denmark and Sweden have set these commitments as well and they've been working on plans for the last 18 months, so we’re looking to bring across their learnings as quickly as possible and not try to reinvent the wheel because they’ve made great progress over that time.

What will be your biggest challenges?

Brigitte: The biggest challenge will be moving at pace. It’s so easy to fall into business as usual and just carry on with incremental change, but we haven't got that much time. We need to upskill our people quickly, we need to set up our systems and processes quickly, and that means things might not be perfect as we work it all out.

It’s really about mobilizing and influencing the whole design process instead of getting caught up on the base case and how we set things up. In an ideal world we’d have a long time for those initial stages but we don’t have that luxury, so moving at pace will be the hardest thing.

Are there any projects you're working on right now where you're already trying to halve the carbon footprint?

Brigitte: We’re supporting WaterCare’s capital expenditure programme, and there’s the City Rail Link and the Manawatū Gorge highway. A lot of our clients are setting carbon reduction targets for projects and we're working with them on those.

But because we’re taking a portfolio approach, it doesn’t mean every project needs to reach that 50% reduction – there will be some that go over and some that go under. It’s really about trying to do it at scale and move the business in the direction that we want to go.

What does success look like for WSP when we get to 2030?

Ian: Success as always for our business will be seen through the eyes of our clients, and it will be determined by our clients saying that WSP has added a huge amount of value to help them decarbonise their existing assets.

For me it's not a competitive thing – hopefully we lead the industry forward in this area, and design in a manner that decarbonises is taken as a given going forward, that you don't get to the table unless you're providing design that is conscious of the amount of carbon that's both embedded and will be emitted.

What's the reaction been from people so far?

Ian: There’s been a real buzz actually, particularly from our team, they’re really pumped up. And we’ve had lots of positive feedback from our clients too.

I think putting a line in the sand commits you and drives you to that action, and so hopefully others will come along for the journey.

Will you be reporting on your progress?

Brigitte: Yes, we will open up and share how we’re going about it. It’s important that we can support the industry to change and part of that is being transparent with the whole process.

Ian: We see this as a similar issue to the Diversity Agenda Accord – it's an industry position. It’s not to get one up on your peers, it’s about we can do things for the greater good of Aotearoa. That’s the focus and we’re more than happy to share that with others.

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