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New digital tools help infrastructure developers minimise their impact on the environment

Author: Katie Dawson, GIS and biodiversity specialist, Costain

How do we ensure the infrastructure we’re building to underpin our towns and cities and enable our way of life doesn’t cost us the earth? As an industry, we have to find a way to balance the demand for better transport connections, more housing, cleaner energy and a steady flow of fresh water with the urgent need to protect our environment.

At Costain, we’re turning to technology to help us do this. As part of a research, development and innovation programme with the University of Reading, we’re designing leading-edge geospatial technology and solutions that we hope will positively disrupt the sector.

More intelligence and insight enables better decision making

We’re transforming 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.

For the first time, infrastructure owners and operators will be able to identify, assess and mitigate the impact of their projects on biodiversity at the click of a button. This can help us:

- Automate workflow
- Improve efficiency
- Save time, costs and resources
- Improve communication with stakeholders, including authorities and suppliers
- Meet regulatory requirements.

It can be used throughout the lifecycle of a project, from business development through to post-construction. But it’s particularly useful during the concept, assessment and design development phases because it can help us avoid surprises, which often lead to delays in the schedule and unexpected costs.

Protecting biodiversity on infrastructure projects: is it a moral or a legal obligation?

In the UK, the Government has set out plans to ensure developers prevent damage to natural habitats and help to reverse any harm that has been caused in the past. This approach, called biodiversity net gain, will be mandated in the Government’s next Environment Bill. It means developers will be legally required to leave natural habitats in a better state than they were in before their work started. If that’s not possible, they can pay a levy to make improvements to the environment elsewhere.

Many organisations are already identifying ways to minimise the impact of infrastructure development and some, like Costain, have made net positive biodiversity gain a part of their own sustainability goals.Similarly, entire sectors are expected to take a leadership role by implementing policies that demand net gains even before the legislation has been introduced.

But calculating and weighing up all of the information, options and costs associated with managing biodiversity onsite is notoriously difficult and time consuming. Our new digital tool breaks this process down into four key work streams:

 

1. Making data available from the outset                                                                                                                            

We’re putting as much information as possible about the site at people’s fingertips. For example, identifying regulatory constraints such as national parks or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

 

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 units1. 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, the biodiversity units are currently the numeric value which is 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.


By harnessing the power of technology, we’re able to quickly and easily identify, assess and even see the impact of construction on our natural habitats, and put in place appropriate management strategies. The new tool we have developed is currently being tested at completed sites to pinpoint where savings could have been made. It’s also being trialed on a live site between now and the end of the year so we can ensure our clients benefit from this innovative use of geospatial technology as soon as possible.

My goal is to ensure we can use data to drive decision making on the best ways to protect and enhance biodiversity and that it quickly becomes business-as-usual rather than a novel approach.

And this is only the beginning. The same tools that we use to help infrastructure owners and operators can be used to help us frame incentives for farmers and help them understand how land cover change is affecting wildlife. If farmers were incentivized to preserve valuable habitats, these could be used as offsetting sites that infrastructure companies could use as part of a scheme to reach their net gains.

Katie is part of Costain’s research, development and innovation team that is creating smart infrastructure solutions to address some of the most pressing challenges society has ever faced. In a collaborative approach, Costain has created a community of PhDs across leading research organisations, clients and business partners to ensure we are working on meeting our clients’ needs and that ideas come to market through a proven route to deliver maximum impact.

Find out more about our research that is shaping the future of infrastructure. 

 

References

  • 1  This will be based on biodiversity net gains when the legislation is announced. In the meantime, the current assessment method is the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’(Defra’s) biodiversity offsetting tool, which was piloted in 2012.
  • ** The work has been carried out as part of an Engineering Doctoral collaboration between Costain and the University of Reading.