Sustainability performance measurement


Choosing the ‘why’ in sustainability performance measurement

Keeping the big picture in mind (and avoiding a checklist mentality)

There should be a shift towards the measurement of sustainability performance on major projects, whatever the industry. Often the focus is too late or centred around ‘ticking the box’ compliance, missing the opportunity for true sustainability leadership with a project-specific strategy and objectives.

Achieving effective sustainability performance management requires strong leadership and a desire to leave a legacy for future projects. Focusing on the ‘why’ of sustainability is one way to keep the big picture in mind. Considering the four pillars of sustainability (Figure 1), each project has a unique sustainability context depending on its purpose, geography and function.

Figure 1: The four pillars of sustainability

Four pillars of sustainability - pillar 1 social


Four pillars of sustainability - pillar 2 economic


Four pillars of sustainability - pillar 3 environmental


Four pillars of sustainability - pillar 4 cultural


Governance - Four Pillars of SustainabilitySustainability Governance


Based on this context, sustainability leadership seeks to advocate for the implementation of sustainability outcomes that promote transparency and accountability, engage communities and result in the creation of shared value.

Sustainability infrastructure assessment systems provide the platform and the guide to measure and verify sustainability performance. However, it is often difficult to define and articulate meaningful sustainability outcomes and narratives if there’s only a checklist mentality.

Share knowledge and lessons learned by storytelling

Stories are everything – in sustainability as in life. By framing the context, setting meaningful targets, and measuring a project’s sustainability outcomes, they build a narrative that gives genuine meaning to the data and evidence. Engaging the project team, stakeholders and community early in a project’s development is part of the storytelling approach.

The sustainability narrative tells the story of a project’s outcomes, why they were pursued and their tangible measured benefits.

Sustainability leaders are wielding the power of narrative to engage project teams, stakeholders, and communities on the four pillars of sustainability and how these contextually relate to project performance management. Growing demands from project owners, governments, and communities, for transparency of sustainability performance and disclosure, means prioritising this storytelling as an imperative for success.

Sustainability leadership

The merging of ideas, perspectives and areas of expertise, facilitated by an open communication process, reaps benefits for a sustainability performance journey. In practice, it means that a project team, from the outset, challenges the status-quo and searches out more sustainable ways to deliver a project. This influences everything; from the design of the project, to the materials used, waste management processes, and how the team works with the community and stakeholders.

Meaningful sustainability is achieved through collaboration among project partners, stakeholders and the supply chain. Sustainability leadership combines facilitation skills and pragmatism to deliver impactful outcomes with multiple benefits. These include minimising a project’s footprint and creating a safer and more integrated infrastructure that responds to its social, economic, environmental and governance context. The outcome is creating resilience to future changes such as climatic, social expectations, and user behaviour.

It takes strong sustainability leadership to champion monitoring and driving performance in project delivery and beyond. The advantage of sustainability leadership is that it’s more than ‘ticking the box’. It’s the project team, stakeholders and community, working in partnership, to deliver more sustainable infrastructure that conserves and enhances the environment for future generations, and creates positive social outcomes throughout its lifecycle (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A meaningful sustainability journey map

Aurecon delivers more sustainable infrastructure that conserves and enhances the environment for future generations, and creates positive social outcomes throughout its lifecycle.Aurecon delivers more sustainable infrastructure that conserves and enhances the environment for future generations, and creates positive social outcomes throughout its lifecycle.

Leaving a legacy

Infrastructure assets are long-term investments with lasting impacts over multiple decades. It is vital to integrate sustainability into the development and delivery of these projects, right now, to be able to tackle the global challenges of climate change in the future.

A project that benefits its customers, proponents, and the environment will provide a legacy for future generations.

A selection of transport infrastructure case studies demonstrate sustainability leadership from engineering, design and advisory company, Aurecon, are presented here:

  • City Rail Link, New Zealand: A Mana Whenua (the indigenous Māori peoples of the area) forum was established from the beginning and then legalised through the project’s binding consent conditions. This enhanced relationships, and cultural considerations, through partnership with Mana Whenua and an innovative application of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia sustainability rating tool to capture Mana Whenua outcomes.
  • Robinsons Road Level Crossing Removal, Australia: The road under rail grade separation posed stormwater challenges that would be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. A multidisciplinary, climate change risk assessment was undertaken to assess potential risks and treatments. The underpass pump station was then designed around progressive adaptation, with the pump well sized for an anticipated larger pump to be installed in the future, in line with predicted increased rainfall due to climate change.
  • Metro Tunnel Project, Australia: Community and stakeholder engagement, impacts and outcomes, were a focus of the project as a significant piece of infrastructure through a major city. Due to the proximity of residents and vibration-sensitive research facilities, the project team undertook extensive measurements, modelling and stakeholder engagement to determine the most appropriate construction scheduling to reduce the construction and operational impact on the receiving environment and communities. This focus was reflected in the increased weighting of community, stakeholder and environmental impacts in the sustainability rating frameworks used.
  • Regional Rail Revival, Australia: The regional context of the project sets the scene for meaningful and sustainable economic and workforce outcomes. The project’s focus on developing local industry skills and economies, with access to employment and education through employment targets and quotas, and coordinated community engagement. The positive socio-economic impacts are significant and wide-reaching, benefitting entire communities.
  • Flagstaff Road Upgrade, Australia: Detailed lifecycle assessments of alternative, supplementary and recycled materials were completed to inform the materials selection, based on embodied carbon, diversion from landfill, alignment with proponent investment objectives and co-benefits of material use. Pavement, drainage and structural material with embodied carbon contributed to the project’s environmental sustainability.

Achieving meaningful outcomes

Balancing the four pillars of sustainability on a major project is not a straightforward task. Unique for every project, it is a journey to define what sustainability is. Different sustainability factors should be weighted differently depending on which factors are important to the context of the project. Whether that be offering employment to local disadvantaged groups, preserving specific native flora or fauna, or achieving a reduction in the project’s carbon footprint.

Sustainability rating tools are a credible and transparent way to demonstrate outcomes. Contracts create accountability for design and delivery teams, often linking sustainability performance to performance requirements or to a specific ‘score’ using an assessment and verification framework, similar to the Infrastructure Sustainability Rating scheme, to provide a comprehensive scale verification for a project meeting its specific benchmark for sustainability performance. A solid foundation, strong sustainability reporting and effective narrative communication are key to moving beyond simply achieving sustainability requirements and toward meaningful sustainability outcomes.

About the Author

Ellen Worthington is experienced in sustainability delivery and implementation on major transportation projects. Her specialty is sustainability leadership; sustainability policy and strategy for projects and authorities, project-specific sustainability aspirations and outcomes realisation, and sustainability in project planning, development and procurement processes.

She is an accredited infrastructure sustainability professional with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) and leads sustainability assessments that consider the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Her passion is helping clients to achieve better project and organisational outcomes from an environmental and sustainability perspective.

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