Trideep Barua, global segment manager - infrastructure at ABB, explains why now is the time for renewed investment in major infrastructure projects which are going to have the biggest impact on sustainability.

The latest research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows energy-related carbon emissions rose by 0.9% in 2022 – a small win given the expected impact of increases in coal and oil use due to the ongoing global energy crisis, but it’s plain to see that the world remains on an unsustainable growth trajectory. We are currently emitting over 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, and IEA projections for announced and stated policies show that we aren’t doing nearly enough to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5oC below pre-industrial levels.

We urgently need to invest in more green, efficient and smart infrastructure powered by digital technology if net zero carbon targets are to be reached.

On a positive note, there are some good things happening which are helping us to move in the right direction. We are seeing ‘shovel-ready’ small and medium sized projects getting the go ahead, such as regional airports and mid-capacity water projects which require limited CAPEX. Arguably, some of these have been born out of necessity, such as the hurried investments in agricultural and irrigation to help countries become less dependent on imported food and staples. Water projects too, such as wastewater treatment plants, are increasingly pushed to the front of the queue as climate change wreaks havoc on water security.

Similarly, brownfield opportunities such as small to mid-scale digital and technology upgrades, capacity expansions or modifications are also being moved further up the list. These projects can largely be completed under OPEX.

But worryingly some major smart infrastructure projects are being put on hold. Mega airports, ports and water desalination and reservoir projects, particularly those with a bigger CAPEX and those at conceptual or pre-design stage, are being shelved or postponed. Why are governments and other stakeholders opting for a watch and wait policy on these larger projects?

The reasons could be many and varied. Since the onset of Covid in 2020, it has been a veritable rollercoaster of challenging conditions for major infrastructure projects. Global and regional lockdowns, global transportation challenges and material shortages all impacted the delivery of construction projects during the pandemic years. Then came the war in Ukraine. The ensuing economic uncertainty and high inflation, which has in turn increased the cost of commodities and finance, were yet more reasons to keep major smart infrastructure builds on the back burner.

While geo-political and economic uncertainty prevail for now, the need for investment to be channelled into bigger projects mounts, particularly as large-scale smart infrastructure projects can have a sizeable impact on the world’s journey to net zero. For example, 90% of the world’s ports still don’t have ship to shore connections, so vessels in port must run fossil fuelled generators to maintain power while docked. This is a huge issue which will have a considerable impact on the decarbonization of the marine industry.

We understand the delays to some degree, as many investors and developers will be waiting for a clear runway (free of global disruptions) to take off. But there may never be one. And what will the cost of waiting be? Given the timescales involved in delivering major projects from concept to delivery, are we going to be too late to make a difference to global warming?

Perhaps what we need is a more long-term approach to smart infrastructure, particularly those which require substantial capital, so that assets last for longer and deliver more. An airport, for example, can last for 30-50 years, but can it evolve over the years and remain cost effective and efficient to run? Our ethos is that hardware must be built to last, while the software driving it must be able to change and evolve over time.

Evolving, future-proof infrastructure has digitalization at its core to actively help operators meet long term sustainability goals. A digitally connected ecosystem helps developers, builders and operators gain clear and credible insight into how their assets are performing across the board.

Digitally driven solutions like asset management, can identify potential faults before they become an issue so practical steps can be taken to improve performance and increase the lifespan of an asset. This eliminates unexpected downtime and enhances operational savings.

Digitalization is also a key component in helping infrastructure projects to adapt over time to the addition of renewable energy generation in the energy mix – this is particularly important on large, complex sites. Securing a clean, reliable and resilient power supply is a main priority but when plugging in decentralized energy sources, such as solar or wind power, it can have huge impacts on the stability of supply and resilience without the right digital tools in place for regulating, controlling and monitoring the flow of electricity.

By adding a variety of forms of renewable energy resources and other features such as battery storage solutions to the distribution ecosystem, decarbonization and resilience are increased. Digitalization enables this flexibility and it will become even more critical in the future as heating and transportation loads switch to electric, again future-proofing projects for the changing needs of consumers, business and industry.

The shift to smart infrastructure is fundamental to the survival of our planet as we know it and for humanity itself. The revolution is in motion and all that we can change is the speed with which it is implemented. We need to accelerate the journey now if we are to create a more sustainable planet for future generations.