For several reasons, owners of large-scale infrastructure assets may want to understand and/or demonstrate how well or otherwise their assets are performing in terms of their environmental impact.

For some, this can be used as a marketing tool to validate their efforts at corporate citizenship. Others may simply wish to demonstrate compliance with regulations or operating licences. For others still, environmental audits may form part of broader efforts to monitor the health and performance of their assets.

For this to happen, organisations need to monitor the performance of their assets over time. To do this, a system of environmental performance monitoring and auditing is needed.

This raises questions about areas of misconception which surround environmental performance auditing along with what needs to be considered in determining an optimal approach in this area.

On the first point, Stuart Joyce, Environmental Engineer and Melbourne Branch Manager at engineering and environmental consultancy Morphum Environmental, says common misconceptions fall into two categories.

First, some may view the audits as a ‘tick the box’ exercise. This should not be the case. In fact, Joyce says the focus should be about organisations establishing systems and processes for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of critical areas of environmental performance. These should be designed to enable asset owners and operators to identify areas where either improvement is happening or where performance over time has slipped.

These processes, he says, need not be unduly onerous or costly. Moreover, they should be tailored for each organisation and need to focus on the information and areas which are most relevant to that entity.

Next, he says there can be ideas about audits representing a full and complete sustainability strategy. Performance audits, Joyce says, are an important part of delivering upon environmental goals. Nevertheless, he encourages firms to view sustainability as a broader concept which encompasses not only environmental considerations but also social and economic ones as well.

Joyce says environmental audits can deliver value in several ways.

First, they help organisations identify how they are tracking against their environmental objectives and the adequacy or otherwise of current measures to deliver on these.

Next, they provide a tool to support any marketing or public relations effort which firms may pursue to demonstrate their credentials as good corporate citizens. Organisations wishing to promote themselves as being carbon neutral or being on a path to carbon neutrality, for example, may use data from their audits to add credibility to their claims.

Finally, the audits can help to identify concerns surrounding the operational performance or condition of assets about which owners may not have otherwise been aware. Unexpected leaks or contamination, for instance, may signal that something is broken and needs maintenance.

According to Joyce, audit processes vary in line with the scale of the operations, the drivers behind the performance measurement, the data being collected and the personnel who are involved. Speaking from Morphum’s own perspective, he says an important part of what his firm does involves conducting internal workshops where clients talk through issues such as who is responsible for what tasks, what expertise the firm possesses and who possess this, what established processes are in place, what existing data is collected and how this is done and whether or not there is any monitoring in place. From there, a program can be devised which enables the firm to capture data in a manner which is consistent, not unduly onerous as far as collection processes are concerned and relevant to the organisation’s objectives.

In terms of strategies, Joyce says several issues are critical.

First, once data has been captured, it must be communicated to relevant stakeholders. To enable this to happen, Joyce says it is important when designing systems to understand who will use the data and how it will be used.

Second, where possible, data must be captured in a way in which it can be used not only for environmental performance reporting but also in other areas of the business. Data which indicates water leakage, for example, could be shared with the maintenance division for potential action.

Finally, to enable analysis of trends in performance time, data should be collected in a way which is consistent and easily comparable with that collected at other points in time.

Dr Dave Collins, Managing Director and Principal Environmental Engineer of environmental engineering firm Synergetics, says there are challenges associated with a lack of clear and agreed yardsticks through which the environmental performance of infrastructure assets can be measured and assessed.

According to Collins, there are numerous sets of metrics which can be used. None of these, however, are consistent. Even where a ‘tick the box’ approach is used, wording and statements within these can be interpreted differently by different personnel.

When implementing an auditing strategy, Collins says it is important to be clear about which yardsticks will be used to measure performance.

This, he says, will vary according to the type of asset in question. In the case of many buildings, for instance, measurements could include relevant construction standards such as National Construction Code requirements or Green Star certification criteria. For a chemical plant, it could include operational criteria such as those specified in the ISO 14000 Environmental Management standards. In static forms of horizontal infrastructure such as roads, it might again focus on construction issues such as the provision and design of drainage.

Once this is decided, an auditor who is qualified to measure performance against the chosen benchmark must be selected. If performance is measured against ISO14000, for example, audits should be performed by those accredited to certify compliance with that standard.

Collins says an interesting question surrounds whether asset owners should use standards and measurements which are publicly available or should devise their own standards which go further and set more aspirational targets.

On one hand, he says there are benefits associated with being more aspirational and using metrics which are targeted to needs of individual firms. Standards and measurements which are publicly available, he says, go through years of approval processes and thus are not generally reflective of the most recent innovations or technology at any given point in time. Thus there may well be a case to go further and aim for more aspirational targets which reflect up-to-date technologies and practices.

On the flip side, yardsticks which are publicly available may be better understood and afforded more credibility among external stakeholders. Members of the public, for instance, may distrust performance metrics which are not determined by independent sources through careful consideration.

As well, Collins cautions against reliance upon suppliers for advice. Suppliers, he said, have a vested interest in promoting their own offering. Those who invest millions of dollars building and maintaining assets should obtain independent advice from suitably qualified professionals.

Around Australia, infrastructure asset owners must understand how their assets are performing from an environmental perspective.

With simple strategies, this can be done in a way which delivers maximum possible value.