Working with nature is key if construction is not to get caught in the middle of two important but potentially contradictory ambitions, says KPMG’s Richard Threlfall

Richard Threlfall

“The profession of the civil engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” So stated the royal charter granted to the Institution of Civil Engineers on 3 June 1828.

Today the definition offends against the gender diversity for which the profession strives. But it also offends against biodiversity, by presuming that nature is there to be moulded to the convenience of humanity, with no acknowledgement of what the implications for that nature might be.

But that was 1828. We have long since embraced environmental impact assessments and the UK takes the protection of certain species that may be affected by building works extremely seriously. So what’s the problem? Answer, the world is belatedly waking up to the fact that $44 trillion of economic value generation, more than 50% of global GDP, is moderately or highly dependent on nature.

Global populations of mammals, birds, fish amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016

Our way of life, our quality of life, our very existence depends on protecting that biodiversity yet, according to the WWF, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68%, on average, between 1970 and 2016.

Last autumn KPMG’s survey of sustainability reporting showed that less than 25% of major companies are currently including any reporting on their biodiversity impact. But the pressure for change is building fast.

Last year saw the launch of the taskforce on nature-related financial disclosure. And, when the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation conducted a consultation before Christmas on setting up a sustainability standards board, many respondents argued that biodiversity reporting should be a high priority, after climate reporting.

Then, in February, the UK government published the Dasgupta review on the economics of biodiversity. The report has been widely acclaimed for its breadth and insight.

It argues for transformational change in our relationship with nature, with specific recommendations including that governments should include natural capital in their national accounting systems, that more protected areas should be established, on land and in the oceans, and that financial systems should be established to incentivise the protection of critical ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest. I strongly recommend you read at least its 10-page summary of headline messages.

That the government sponsored the production of such a report is encouraging, but there is a divergence between the message of the report and the reality of many government policies and indeed our own stance as a society. We know for example that the country is desperately short of new homes, and in our zeal to solve that issue the government will sometimes sanction building on the green belt.

We are at risk of a head-on collision between our country’s aspirations for construction and the growing focus on biodiversity

Indeed, in Burley in Wharfedale, the town adjacent to where I live, planning permission has just been granted in a letter which includes the statement “The secretary of state agrees that the proposal would represent inappropriate development in the green belt … [and] … inevitably lead to encroachment into the countryside”.

We are, I believe, at risk of a head-on collision between our country’s aspirations for construction and the growing focus on biodiversity. How do we avoid our industry getting castigated in the middle? There are four things I recommend all businesses in the construction industry start to do, if you do not already:

1. Start to report now, voluntarily, against the biodiversity standards, for example those issued by the global reporting initiative (GRI).

2. Put in place policies that require active consideration of the biodiversity impact of the supply chain of the materials used on your projects. Require your suppliers to disclose the information you need, search for the supply that does the least harm, and document your decisions, both to help track progress and to help explain when challenged.

3. Go above and beyond in environmental impact assessments. That they are demanding already does not mean that compliance is enough in the court of public opinion. Put in place a culture that sees the assessment as a tool for finding the best way to do something – or not do it all – rather than justify what had been planned.

4. Refuse to bid for or accept any job that carries material controversy or question marks on grounds of biodiversity impact. From a reputational point of view, it is not worth the risk, and besides it is the right thing to do.

I have argued in this column before – and still maintain – that climate change is the existential challenge of our time. Biodiversity is being seriously affected by climate change and that harm will be mitigated by our collective actions to reduce carbon emissions. But, as the Dasgupta review explains, there is so much more we need to do. As businesses it is our responsibility first to do no harm and then change our whole attitude to nature, so we work with it, not simply harness it “for the use and convenience of man”.

Richard Threlfall is a partner and global head of infrastructure and KPMG IMPACT



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