Sustainable infrastructure was the theme of a recent telephonic conversation that I had with A. L. Kapur, MD, Ambuja Cements Ltd. “Do we have a common understanding of sustainable infrastructure, as between the emerging and the developed economies?” was my first question. And his answer was in the affirmative.

Sustainable infrastructure describes infrastructure that facilitates a nation or region’s progress towards the goal of sustainable living, says Mr. Kapur. Attention is paid to technological and government policies that enable the planners to aim at sustainable architecture and initiatives that promote sustainable living, he adds.

“Academically, a sustainable design leads to the development of sustainable communities. The aim is to reduce an individual’s ecological footprint according to the principles of sustainable development.”

Generally speaking, sustainable infrastructure includes public transport networks, generation and distribution of electricity, buildings for living, office spaces and public utilities, such as airports, stations, roads and ports, connected green spaces and wildlife corridors, Mr Kapur explains, in the course of a subsequent email exchange. “It also includes low-impact development practices to protect and conserve water resources. The scope of the topic is wide and its impact is wider.”

Excerpts from the interview

How does sustainable infrastructure impact the cement industry?

Sustainability impacts industries across all sections. Even a cursory glance at today’s environmental challenges helps us realise that sustainable infrastructure is a great challenge and an urgent one for that matter. The history of developed nations tells us that creation of infrastructure always precedes economic advancement. This is a Catch-22 situation. A nation ought to develop its infrastructure to facilitate economic growth; and its ability to grow on a sustainable basis depends on how successfully it deals with environmental challenges arising from the process of building infrastructure.

It is important for the developed nations to actively pursue steep emission reduction targets. With vast resources at their disposal, developed countries can demonstrate the feasibility and desirability of low-carbon growth to the rest of the world. The developing countries and its people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change while being least responsible for the problem.

In what ways can we promote sustainable infrastructure?

I believe that there is urgent need to have clarity on fundamentals. It is time that we completely understand sustainability. Some thirty years back, we understood the meaning of the term quality. Sustainability is a challenge that will reduce costs and increase consumer acceptance over a period of time as pointed out by the management guru C. K. Prahalad.

Sustainability brings its sponsor a huge competitive advantage. It is not a compliance issue. It carries in it an opportunity where each one of us can do something to solve the global challenges. There is a role for each one of us in our endeavour to face this global challenge.

Let me cite a few examples. India’s water scenario is scary and horrendous because of the vagaries of monsoon. The challenge lies in trapping the rain water, storing it and canalising it towards the needy areas for its optimum use. We constructed the country’s first large dam at Bhakra in 1963; this led the great green revolution. The country has undertaken and completed 200 large to medium irrigation projects in the past 20 years. The area irrigated per project, over years, has significantly dropped when compared to the initial advantage Bhakra brought to the nation.

The aviation industry affords us another example. This industry produced 660 million tonnes of CO2 in 2008 alone. Every time each one of us travels by air, we pollute the environment. When we travel by 1st class, we damage the environment four times over our co-passengers in the economy class. When the VIPs fly by their own planes, they damage the environment many times over. This needs to be watched. It is interesting to note that 1 kg of fuel-saving spares the earth of 3.12 kg of CO2 emission.

Economic growth and industrial development demand that more power be generated. Each unit of power generated leads to CO2 emissions. The Indian government has plans to generate 0.8 million MW of incremental power by 2030. More than 50 per cent of this incremental power will come from thermal power plants. With an average consumption of 500 units per person/year, Indians use much less electricity than their Western counterparts whose consumption ranges from 8,000 to 10,000 units; I expect this gap to close in the years to come.

Growth and development need electricity. As a country we have a massive deficit looking at us. We, therefore, need to find innovative solutions that could safeguard us as well as the globe. For example, we are gifted with clear sun for most part of the year. India has the potential to generate 2.5 trillion MW of solar energy. Currently we produce only 100 MW. Sunlight falling on just one per cent of the land mass is enough to provide all the electricity the country needs. It comes free and can be harnessed without much pollution. Studies also show that if we put to use 55 sq. km. of land in the Thar Desert, we would be able to generate electricity in volumes that could meet the entire country’s power needs with almost zero-carbon emissions.

Would you like to talk about some of the common myths about sustainable infrastructure?

Sustainable infrastructure development is not expensive as thought by some. Nor is it a fashionable thing. It is the need of today to safeguard our children’s future. There are many things that can be talked about in this context where sustainable infrastructure has only helped bring down costs on a long-term basis.

In an urban context, buildings consume 40 per cent of energy and thus, they are a major contributor to carbon emissions. Design and construction of green buildings can address climate change issues to a large extent. It is estimated that each 1 million sq. ft. of constructed green building area reduces 12 to 15 thousand tonnes of CO2 each year.

Needless to say that mass rapid transport system such as the Metro rail is a good way to promote sustainable transport. In order to promote eco-efficient and sustainable transport, it is advisable to adopt a regional approach on how to handle local traffic and how to put to use land conditions to our advantage.

Are there adequate incentives to promote sustainable infrastructure?

There is a need to undertake an awareness drive to sensitise one and all to sustainability and the need to develop infrastructure that can withstand a test of sustainability. It’s necessary to adopt a holistic approach that should include infrastructure development policies and strategies. It should take into account eco-efficiency concepts and involve systems related to water conservation and management. The approach should also be inclusive of public utility services such as mass transportations and generation of electricity. I would urge the Central Government to think about a Green Budget that would offer incentives for use of minimal natural resources and promote investments in sustainable infrastructure.

The task ahead is massive. Contribution to GHGs is enormously higher from the developed nations as compared to the developing ones, like India and China. The irony lies in the fact that demands are being made on the developing nations to curtail their emissions in line with the developed nations. We need a level-playing field to ensure that our development and growth are not hindered by these regulations. It would be, however, prudent on our part to adopt policies and practices that would ultimately lead to the global good.

Any other points of interest.

Many responsible companies including Ambuja Cements publish Sustainability Report. This document demonstrates our commitment to contribute to areas of environment, health, safety and other sustainability areas like developing alternative means of livelihood. Ambuja Cement Foundation has done great community work around all our projects; it touches the lives of over 1.5 million needy people around our plants. The Foundation has initiated mason training programmes along with the Customer Support Department of the company. This is one of the grassroots-level community initiatives that promises alternative livelihood.

As far as parent company Holcim is concerned, its efforts began with the establishment of Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction in 2003. The initiatives taken by the company in manufacturing plants have yielded results that show a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, increase in clinker factor and co-processing of waste besides reduction in consumption of coal.

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