Anyone who works in the infrastructure sector knows one simple truth: new infrastructure doesn’t just happen. Everyone from policymakers and planners to investors and contractors knows that creating new infrastructure is, by its very nature, a complicated affair.

Infrastructure projects go on a long journey to get from bright idea to ribbon-cutting stage.

That shiny new bridge or train line extension is the result of a complex cycle requiring the coordination of many moving parts and a huge number of stakeholders – including the end users of the infrastructure.

One of the positives of all this complexity is that the infrastructure sector is good at working together to get things done. This puts them in a good position to be great at their next big challenge: preparing for Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy.

Extreme weather has not been kind to Australia lately, with devastating fires, floods, and storms causing havoc. These kinds of problems show just how important it is to meet our strict Paris Climate Agreement emissions targets, which include achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

A new report from the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), ClimateWorks Australia and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) shows that infrastructure has a crucial role to play in the zero carbon transition. The Issues Paper: Reshaping Infrastructure for a net zero emissions future shows that we need to start the conversation so that our transport, energy, water, communications and waste infrastructure is fit for the challenges ahead.

Our infrastructure is directly responsible for 15% of Australia’s emissions, and indirectly responsible for 55%. Some emissions are caused while building the infrastructure. For example, road building machines and equipment might use fossil fuel energy during construction. Other emissions are embodied in the fabric of the project, like the concrete or bitumen used to build the road. But most emissions are associated with the infrastructure’s end use; the vehicles that will use the road day after day for decades after it is completed.

Infrastructure is a long term investment. Most things we build now will still be in use in 2050, so it’s vital that we build for the zero carbon future that we know is coming. But right now there is no systematic, universally accepted way to include Australia’s looming zero carbon future in infrastructure decisions. ASBEC’s Bang for Buck report, based on a series of roundtables with more than 50 decision makers from across governments, agencies and industry, showed some key actions that will improve the creation of business cases for proposed infrastructure, taking factors like climate change and quality of life into account.Preview (opens in a new tab)

Last month, Infrastructure Australia released a priority list of nationally significant investments, identifying several key initiatives to support our communities in a climate transition.  These include a coastal inundation protection strategy, a national water strategy, and better management of national waste and recycling processes. To get there we’ll need improved procurement processes; a national vision for our cities and towns setting out the way we’ll manage population growth; better data collection; and new ways of incorporating nature into our urban areas.

Many infrastructure stakeholders have started thinking about emissions already. Private investors, without whom most of Australia’s infrastructure would never happen, have begun to change the way they decide what is worth investing in, increasingly taking carbon emissions into account when making funding decisions and actively looking for zero or low carbon projects. Business increasingly backs a net zero carbon economy too.

Australia’s infrastructure sector is well rehearsed in the complicated negotiations necessary to achieve big changes. Getting to our zero net carbon future is a challenge, but it’s one that infrastructure stakeholders can and must achieve. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get the conversation started.