How can infrastructure do more to boost biodiversity?
Author: Katie Dawson, , GIS and biodiversity specialist, Costain
With an increase in UK government investment in infrastructure, now is the time to look carefully at how we as a sector can do more to minimise any negative impact on biodiversity. If we use the right technology tools early on in all projects, the industry has an opportunity to maximise its positive impact and biodiversity net gain across the UK.
As part of our commitment to be a clean growth leader, Costain has been designing leading-edge geospatial technology and solutions in collaboration with the University of Reading that provide a way to do this but also provide greater programme delivery and cost certainty.
The optimal time to consider biodiversity is in the design phase of an infrastructure project. This phase is particularly crucial for adding concepts that reduce impacts to the environment such as habitat loss, pollution, and waste production. It is also in this phase in which the cost of changes is the lowest, making it the best phase for realising aspirations, influencing costs and adding value in the context of project improvement. “Great potential reductions in operations’ sustainable impacts could be made if sustainability is considered early in planning and design” (Tsai and Chang 2012 p128). However, the design in building and infrastructure is complex, in many cases the workflow isn’t as simple as “Part A needs to be completed before Part B”, as in manufacturing production, and may include multiple iterations to add value.
At Costain, we are harnessing powerful geographic information systems (GIS) technology, which is often used to capture, manage, and help people visualise location data, into a comprehensive analysis and decision-making tool that allows us to consider biodiversity in the design phases and plan in cost effective biodiversity net gain. We do this by:
1. Utilising available data
We’re putting as much information as possible about the site at people’s fingertips. For example, identifying statutory conservation constraints such as national parks or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), local planning authorities, and identifying land-use and land-cover types.
2. Identifying ecological risks
We’re providing users with data on the characteristics of, and risk to, each habitat. People can select a habitat on a map and will be shown: the distinctiveness, the difficulty of restoration, and the time to maturity. This helps us identify the habitats that may be considered a 'risk' moving forward and gives us a better understanding of the time and cost associated with offsetting the impact of any work.
3. Calculating value
We’re helping people understand the value of a habitat using biodiversity units. This is a multiplication of hectares, distinctiveness and the condition of habitats. It gives a unit amount that needs to be compensated. Biodiversity units in the UK were developed by Defra and are currently used to calculate biodiversity losses and gains. The value of a patch of habitat is determined by multiplying the pre-determined distinctiveness of the habitat with the condition (field survey) and area (hectares). If we understand value early on, we can make decisions about how to proceed, rather than waiting until it’s too late to go back. It also means all disciplines can work together to achieve the best environmental and project outcomes as well as avoid offsetting.
4. Understanding the impact on specific species
Finally, we can determine how a specific species will be affected by the removal of its habitat, and how fragmented or isolated their environments will become as a result of the disruption. We can also test different scenarios, for example, for planting, which will help us develop and evidence our restoration plans.
A good example of success in biodiversity net-gain has been on the Highways England’s £1.5bn A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme. The environmental experts in the A14 Integrated Delivery Team, made up of Balfour Beatty, Skanska and Costain, have planted twice as many plants and trees compared to those removed, creating over 270 hectares of new habitat. Woodland the size of Monaco, 25 miles of hedgerow and scrubland are among the habitats being provided which will mature over 15 years. A trio of new habitats for newts has been built, including ponds, log piles, hibernacula and aquatic planting which were all used through the 2019/2020 winter. In addition to this, 24 wildlife tunnels have been created across the scheme to give animals a safe place to cross. And finally, water voles, which are the fastest declining mammal species in the UK, will benefit from five new habitats. Pre-established coir pallets have been used to provide brand new habitat across all the water vole habitat creation areas, meaning the species will thrive while leaving a lasting legacy for the A14 project.
This is an example of what’s possible to achieve in infrastructure development. The tools Costain has developed since will help projects better capture, manage and help people visualise the ecological data early on in the design so all projects will be able to achieve this sort of level of gain in biodiversity value and natural capital. Stakeholders can be engaged more effectively and surprises that can cause project delays can be avoided. Actions to mitigate impact and enhance the biodiversity net gain can be more easily costed and planned into the delivery programme. Even if there are iterations of the design during the delivery phase or unanticipated discoveries, having all the above data at your fingertips makes for rapid decision making as well as cost effective and environmentally beneficial choices. Early investment in data capture and the right technology not only provides greater delivery and cost certainty, it provides a brighter future for our planet.
The work to develop this leading-edge geospatial technology and tool has been carried out as part of an engineering doctoral collaboration between Costain and the University of Reading. The doctorate is part of Costain’s research, development and innovation programme and is testament to Costain’s commitment to be a clean growth leader, outlined in our Climate Change Action Plan launched in February 2020.