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Insights from the sustainable development goals workshop

24 February 2020

CEEQUAL Director Ian Nicholson shares insights on the Sustainable Infrastructure Group's recent findings on how to integrate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the infrastructure sector.

Insights from the sustainable development goals workshop
Sustainability and the environment. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Sustainable Infrastructure Group is a collaboration between the Institution of Civil Engineers, Constructing Excellence members, CEEQUAL assessors and those involved in CEEQUAL projects to share best practice, challenges and key learning outcomes.

Our most recent meeting’s focus was to share and capture experience of how to integrate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the infrastructure sector and how to tackle the prioritisation and measurement of the goals at both a company and project level.

March 4th will be the inaugural World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, it seems like a fitting opportunity to document some of the key learnings from this forum, and look at them in the context of the Sustainability Route Map, which represents a plan to transform how engineers engage with the SDGs.

I chair one of the route map’s working groups focused on measuring monitoring and reporting the SDGs. Its focus is to translate the high-level SDG goals into project-level indicators, and find compelling ways for engineers to consistently measure impact.

Why use the sustainable development goals?

It is initially important to understand why we need to utilise the SDGs when measuring impact. The short answer is that civil engineering profoundly influences sustainable development. For example, the UNOPS Engineering for Sustainable Development report notes how infrastructure systems are responsible for over half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

But the sector is also uniquely placed to help achieve the SDGs. According to the same UNOPS report, infrastructure’s influence on energy and water, waste management, and transportation and digital communications, can be used to help achieve all individual targets listed under SDG 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 16.

Working towards the SDGs will help mitigate against the biggest risks to the global economy. During the forum we heard from Tim Chapman, Director of Arup Infrastructure, who demonstrated how environmental risks sit at the top of both ‘impact’ and ‘likelihood’ scales on the Global Risks Landscape 2020.

How should you prioritise?

One of the key questions tackled at the forum was how to prioritise the SDGs. Attendees highlighted how prioritisation depends on several factors, such as: scale, type of project, local context and priorities, but also the transboundary impacts at a local and global level. Consistency is also key when measuring SDG criteria, and focusing on specific goals and targets could help in this area.

It is also important to prioritise the SDGs according to how they relate to a specific business: the greater the relevance, the higher the chance of creating impact. There will be opportunities at both business and project level to combat negative impacts but also to positively influence a sustainable built environment.

Principles for sustainable development goal project appraisal

Karl Fuller presented his own guiding principles for SDG project appraisal:

  1. Be clear on the purpose and the value you are adding
  2. Be participative – be multidisciplinary
  3. SDG benefits should demonstrate a net gain
  4. Demonstrate the impact on the baseline
  5. Address both sides of the balance sheet (impacts as well as benefits)
  6. Be evidence (not opinion or interpretation) based
  7. Provide a sense of scale and/or significance
  8. Provide for independent assurance

Karl’s conclusion is that in order to achieve the SDGs within such a short timescale, it is important to start out on the right foot.

How to tackle the complexity of the sustainable development goals

At first glance the SDGs appear as a simple graphic, an instruction manual for sustainable development packaged into 17 small boxes. But for individuals whose job it is to align their projects to the 232 indicators hidden behind the multi-coloured doors, the SDGs become a complicated web to untangle.

In my presentation I highlighted how this web is made even more challenging by the fact that the SDGs were designed at a country level, and not at an organisational or project level. It is therefore important to refer to the goals at different stages of a project, from outputs to deliverables, as these various parts may align to different goals and targets.

One suggestion that has arisen out of the Monitoring, Measurement, Reporting (MMR) working group is to simplify the framework and make it relevant for infrastructure only. Within this idea, it will also be important to understand the goals at a corporate vs project level, and take a consistent approach to measurement, with consideration as to whether the impacts are measured qualitatively or quantitively.

Next steps

On World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, we should celebrate the work of collaborative groups such as this Sustainable Infrastructure forum. These discussions will feed into the Sustainability Route Map MMR working group, and help to shape an understanding of how engineers can effectively and consistently measure impact against the SDGs.

  • Ian Nicholson, senior sustainability leader at Stantec