Sustainable Route: Need to ramp up green infrastructure

Vikramjiet Roy, Managing Director, Maccaferri Environmental Solutions Private Limited

To achieve the goal of net zero emissions by 2070 and contribute to the global eff­or­ts to combat climate change, India has increased its emphasis on adopting sustainable practices in every sector, including the co­ns­truction industry. As late as 2020-21, the country’s construction sector was a major carbon dioxide emitter, contributing around 22 per cent to the total annual emission of 2,648.8 million tonnes. As India moves towards meeting the ambitious target of being a “developed nation” by 2047, concerns related to the construction sector may arise.

The situation demands increased attention from stakeholders in order to rethink and im-ple­ment strategies that offer long-term and en-vironment-friendly solutions. India needs to meet its infrastructure requirements while ke­eping sustainability at its core. So, how can it be done? The answer is fully embracing sustainable infrastructure development practices with each project. Today, the sector primarily uses materials such as concrete, clay and lumber, which contribute to carbon emission. Instead, it must focus on utilising geosynthetic material to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.

It is the need of the hour to leave the business-as-usual approach, implement novel me­thods and leverage cutting-edge technologies to take infrastructure development into the 4.0 phase. A community needs to be form­ed to encourage a more comprehensive and outcome-focused framework.

Sustainable infrastructure is design­ed, bu­i­lt, operated and dismantled in a way that ma­in­tains economic, environmental and financial sustainability across the entire lifespan of the structure. These systems are long-lasting, cost  and time saving, and equipped with protective measures against disasters. The approach in­volves managing land, energy and water as well as creating green spaces utilising smart tech­nology. Additionally, it involves a funda­me­n­tal shift in public policy and private investme­nt decisions. In short, sustainable infrastructure can be described as green, smart and long-lasting.

Key benefits

Sustainable infrastructure comes with numerous advantages. It enhances the long-term val­ue of the facilities in addition to protecting the environment and improving the standard of living for citizens. It also encourages the effective use of natural resources, while safeguarding es­sential financial resources. It helps in preventing soil erosion and water runoff as well.

Additionally, sustainable infrastructure can contribute to lower energy consumption, thus reducing carbon emissions. Utilising renewable energy improves air quality as well. It affects community health positively. Sustainable infrastructure provides significant health advantages due to the benefits of improved air quality, lower carbon emissions, reduced energy consumption and the use of renewable energy sources.

Shifting from “infrastructure-as-usual” to “Infrastructure 4.0”

In order to move towards the Infrastructure 4.0 era, the sector must avoid or minimise the use of harmful materials such as concrete, steel and timber. The shift towards more environment-friendly alternative geosynthetic material such as geogrids, geostrips and geotextiles will help in achieving climate mitigation targets and developing sustainable structures.

Engineered geosynthetic materials have completely transformed civil engineering practices, as they can be used with soil, rock and other building materials. Additionally, they enable and promote the use of local materials, which is desirable today. They help reduce the construction footprint, as well as project costs and duration.

Developers must focus on life cycle costs instead of being dissuaded by initial costs. Fur­ther­more, they must try to source the raw ma­terial locally while being cautious of en­viron­mental labels. Suppliers offering green products must be encouraged.

Additionally, the construction sector must emphasise harnessing the potential of modern digital technologies, not only for new project de­­velopment but also for renovation or redevelopment of existing structures. There are nume­rous digital tools that can help, from the very beginning to the delivery stage, while enhancing work efficiency. They can facilitate design, provide in­si­g­hts, and store and analyse data to help understand project complexities. This will quicken decision-making by improving commu­nicati­on between engineers and site workers, and en­abling remote monitoring and real-time suggestions.

The necessity of the hour is to align India’s economic growth with the country’s infrastructure capacity. To achieve smooth and quick gr­owth, India requires considerable and timely investment in high quality infrastructure. Com­panies such as Maccaferri are providing long-lasting sustainable solutions to replace the conventional ones. Some projects that showcase the adoption of such sustainable techniques are:

  • Chenab Bridge: A first-of-its-kind, reinforced soil structure for railway infrastructure at the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link Pro­ject. The project itself is also an example of using sustainable techniques, one of whi­ch involves the use of tunnel muck (waste pro­du­c­ed during tunnel construction).
  • Atal Tunnel: The world’s longest highway tunnel was constructed at an altitude of 3,000 metres above sea level. In order to make the tunnel sustainable and avalanche-proof, fle­xi­ble snow umbrella units, known as ErdoX snow units, were used. These pyramid-shap­ed metallic structures are stable, lightwei­ght, and easy to transport and install. This strategy not only helps protect people and in­fra­structure from calamities, but also ensu­res sm­ooth road connectivity throughout the year.
  • Khandala Tunnel Pune Corridor: Situated on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the tunnel witnessed several landslide/rockfall events during monsoon, between June and August 2015. These incidents resulted in casualties and traffic disruptions several times. After a thorough study, an impact mitigation strategy was developed to deal with the problem. With the help of rock scaling, subsurface drainage and a rock slope stabilisation system, rockfall mitigation measures were ad­op­ted above and near the tunnel portals, and the issue was resolved. The work was completed in December 2016. The expressway su­ccessfully survived the following monsoon, ensuring smooth traffic.
  • Smriti Van Earthquake Memorial, Kutch, Gujarat: The Smriti Van Earthquake Memo­rial honours over 13,000 people who died in the earthquake of 2001. The memorial design comprises 52 stepwells connected via four unique shapes, enhancing the area’s sce­ne­ry. It is located in Seismic Zone-V, which is highly prone to earthquakes. This was the ma­jor challenge of this project. To develop this structure, gabion technology was used, which assured flexibility and durability. This str­ucture has high aesthetic appeal.

Government initiatives

The Government of India emphasises not only the time-bound completion of infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, power and air­ways, but also their sustainability. In the Bu­dget 2022-23, the government has made it clear that it is serious about climate issues and has suggested a quick shift to sustainable me­ans of construction. It has also decided to apply value engineering, a sustainable method, to the ongoing and upcoming national highway projects. These steps make the government’s intentions clear.

The government is continuously promoting innovation in infrastructure projects through schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, Border Area Development Prog­ramme and others. It is making huge investments in the development of roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure.

Renewed efforts

Investors with short-term goals are reluctant to invest in infrastructure projects, since these are very expensive and require long-term commitment. This situation causes inadequacy of funds. To resolve this issue, the government must promote green financing. It is the need of the hour to mobilise private investment for gr­een financing. Furthermore, a robust green fi­nance regulation mechanism will help encou­rage investors. Moreover, any change to the Environ­men­tal impact assessment guidelines would be applied to under-construction projects as well, which already have approval. Com­pliance with amended norms in the middle of a project is quite difficult. All assessments must be done before construction starts.

Most importantly, robust public-private pa­rtnership is extremely essential for bringing structural changes in cities in accordance with their rapidly evolving needs. Both sectors are playing an active role in implementing and de­ve­loping futuristic infrastructure projects. Con­sequently, they can arrange extra finance, ap­ply state-of-the-art technology and enhance each other’s efficiency.

Net, net

Effective planning will be necessary for the burgeoning urban development, as will incorporating the interests of various stakeholders and pu­tting an emphasis on sustainable building pro­cesses and materials. Better collection, utilisation and analysis of big data will also be necessary. Given India’s climate commitment, gro­wth ambitions and the needs of citizens, sustainable infrastructure has become inevitable for the country. All the stakeholders must come together and make a concrete decision to acc­omplish the goal of creating a sustainable future.