HomeInfrastructureRebuilding nature’s networks with the railway

Rebuilding nature’s networks with the railway

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Rail’s role in securing a more sustainable future has never been clearer or more important. The sector is already embedding sustainability values into everyday decisions to deliver wider societal benefits through better management of the natural environment. However, the rail sector can still integrate sustainability values further into its business and create opportunities to enhance natural capital.

One concept that is now gaining favour in helping understanding of the natural environment is the term Natural Capital. This incorporates the air, water, soil and ecosystems that support all forms of life and which provide us with the renewable and non-renewable materials that we use every day. Our natural environment also gives us benefits in less obvious ways, such as the regulation of water flows, pollinating insects and the mental and physical wellbeing that we get from spending time outside in nature.

Natural capital is not a new concept; the idea that the natural environment provides us with benefits from which we derive value has been around for centuries. But economic systems have not reflected its value in decision-making. This needs to change fast, with our societal and economic success depending on the very capital that we have been degrading. As the Government’s ‘Making Space for Nature’ review emphasised in 2010, “Our natural world is not a luxury: it is fundamental to our wellbeing, health and economy”.

A way forward

‘A Green Future: our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, was published by the government in January this year and represents a real shift in how nature is perceived and valued. The goals of cleaner air and water, sustainable resource use, plants and animals which are thriving, and better engagement with nature are underpinned by a delivery plan centred around a natural capital approach – incorporating nature’s values into decision-making processes.

This requires a radical shift in the way we approach infrastructure development and there is an expectation that the transport and infrastructure sector will contribute to rebuilding the UK’s natural capital and lead on mitigating against climate change. Indeed, rail figures large in the government’s sister document, ‘The Clean Growth Strategy – leading the way to a low carbon future’. Published last October, this report targets higher growth with lower carbon emissions and identifies low carbon transport solutions as an important element of increasing everyone’s earning potential.

Halving carbon emissions is one of four strategic goals for the railway set out in the 2017 Rail Technical Strategy Capability Delivery Plan, which has been endorsed by both the Rail Delivery Group and the Rail Supply Group.

The role of rail

Shifting freight from road to rail, and decarbonising and optimising energy efficiency in rail, are clearly part of the solution for clean growth, but how are we addressing natural capital?

Traditionally, the environment has appeared at odds with development, with extensive environmental impact assessments addressing negative impacts. However, rail has embraced the concept of no net biodiversity loss and shown sector leadership in delivering compensatory habitat through development.

Take the Thameslink programme and London Bridge station redevelopment for example; WSP helped Network Rail achieve net positive gain for biodiversity by developing robust protocols for biodiversity offsetting and partnering with the London Wildlife Trust. WSP developed the station’s sustainability delivery strategy and it went on to achieve the highest ever CEEQUAL rating for sustainability in civil engineering.

But what if rail development could work with the environment at the outset to enhance natural capital beyond biodiversity gain?

Photo: iStock.

The 25 Year Environment Plan introduced the idea of embedding an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development across the UK. From a natural capital perspective, this involves considering the environment in an integrated way, making it central to the development process.

Rail has already made significant progress in deriving multiple economic, environmental and social benefits from the way it delivers infrastructure projects. Network Rail’s combined environmental and social performance policy – enshrined in mandated standard NR/L1/ENV/100 – exemplifies that understanding and approach.

WSP is supporting Network Rail in delivering low-carbon electrified routes by conducting robust sustainability option appraisals in design, championing social value and pioneering biodiversity accounting to quantify changes as a result of development. High-profile commitments to achieve a biodiversity net gain as part of major infrastructure development have created project-specific compensatory habitats, which are, in turn, enhancing natural capital.

Network Rail’s recently launched Environmental and Social Appraisal Tool places the impact on environment and society at the forefront of decision-making. This WSP-designed tool offers an opportunity to embed a natural capital approach.

The Network Rail property estate, much of which was recently sold to Telereal Trillium and Blackstone Property Partners, generates over £200 million per year. Just as space in stations and railway arches has been repurposed to become a lucrative source of income, reserves of natural capital could be created to attract third party investment by embedding natural capital accounting in asset management and design feasibility.

Given this strong starting point, there is opportunity for rail to demonstrate, through everyday decision-making, maintenance and operational activities, how its activities can enhance the natural environment and deliver cost-effective solutions to today’s challenges. This requires the use of innovative methods and metrics to better measure natural capital.

Biodiversity net gain is fundamental to this process and the 2012 Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) biodiversity accounting metric is about to be updated and improved. Beyond this, other tools and methods are being developed that consider wider economic and environmental benefits, such as ‘natural capital accounts’ which assess baseline value for natural capital, monitor change over time, economic costs and benefits to society, and enable informed decision making.

Currently undergoing piloting by Oxford University, with support from WSP and others, the Eco-metric is a habitats-based tool for valuing the wider goods and services delivered by biodiversity net gain. It is based on a scoring matrix adjusted for condition and spatial factors, connectivity and time lag, much like the Defra biodiversity metric, and is designed to support users to deliver both biodiversity and environmental net gain.

Driving better outcomes

The rail sector is well positioned to deliver ‘future ready’ schemes by scaling-up the effort to tackle the global environmental challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, resource depletion and waste, and to address the lack of reinvestment in natural capital. By collaborating with developers, asset management providers, sector partners and other players in transit-oriented development, we can drive these outcomes even further.

Rail will be a key player in the transit-orientated development of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Growth Arc, and the Heathrow expansion plan. Collaboration between key parties to deliver natural capital as an integral part of those development opportunities will be a critical success factor.

In the Natural Capital Committee’s recent fifth annual report to the Economic Affairs Committee, the independent advisory body to government highlighted that “a willingness to pool existing resources and funding in new ways and to modify prior plans, including through more integrated approaches” will be vital to determining success. A holistic approach to embedding environmental value will also appeal to increasingly sustainability-savvy passengers and freight transporters who want to contribute to a clean economy and to natural capital. In turn, expertise and experience in successfully rebuilding natural capital will attract investors.

As we have seen with HS2, and that WSP anticipates will also be a key factor in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Growth Arc, rail shapes the spatial distribution of investment in development. The business case for rail and, ultimately, its funding approval, is not simply about journey time improvement, it’s about maximising broader economic development and social value opportunities for the public good. Integrated programmes of work, as well as multi-investor collaborative design and delivery, have the potential to create even greater reservoirs of natural capital and larger havens for flora and fauna, while better connecting communities and stimulating investment.

Focussed on the future

‘Future Ready’ is WSP’s global innovation and sustainability programme to design projects that are ready for our future world as well as today. This programme anticipates future trends, staying ahead of regulation and creating greater value for projects and clients.

WSP’s integrated consents, environmental assessment and land referencing teams are dedicated to making the case for sustainable development, with a focus on innovation, economic prosperity and environmental quality. Their multi-disciplinary expertise enables them to function as one single, integrated project delivery team, working together to ensure best practice is followed throughout a project lifecycle. This means that WSP can embed the latest thinking on natural capital and value creation right at the start of a project, saving time and money further down the line.

An industry leader on the development and application of the Biodiversity Net Gain process, WSP is currently undertaking biodiversity assessments at national and local level for a number of organisations including Highways England.

As work on biodiversity net gain matures within the UK, WSP is at the forefront of ensuring that it’s delivered in the most appropriate way and that opportunities to rebuild our natural capital are explored. This includes expanding ecology services beyond biodiversity net gain to include natural capital assessments and expertise, benefiting from strong ecological foundations and a diversity of experts in air quality, water, economics, consents, environmental impact assessment, social impact evaluation and sustainability.

Protecting and replenishing natural capital is critical to future economic prosperity and wellbeing. Through sensitive management of nature’s assets and delivery of rail infrastructure projects that work with the environment, the sector has enormous potential to demonstrate leadership in rebuilding natural capital and providing society with a sustainable future.

Written by Jenny Merriman, natural capital technical lead, and Anne Dugdale, technical director, town planning, both of WSP.

Read more: Andrew Haines and the future of UK rail


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