Will procurement requirements be the solution for carbon reduction in infrastructure projects?

Created: June 13, 2019. Updated: August 29, 2019.

Are procurement requirements the answer to carbon reduction in infrastructure construction projects? The recently finalized research project Impres has the answer and gives its recommendations on how to achieve greater carbon reductions.

Download the full report here.

Download the executive summary by clicking the image.

Stefan Uppenberg, Project Manager for the Impres project and Sustainability Consultant at WSP, gives his recommendations to the industry:

“Set high level goals and policies for carbon reduction, think one more time about what you actually want to achieve when defining requirements, develop guidelines, tools and training programs to help build industry capabilities, and enable and legitimize long term strategic collaborative alliances.”

The research project Implementation of Procurement Requirements for Sustainable Collaboration in Infrastructure (Impres) has been running for two years and is now completed. The study is about how procurement requirements for carbon reduction can be implemented in infrastructure projects and how this connects to national and organizational policy contexts in different countries.

The Impres project has interviewed key stakeholders on the client side and within the supply chain in large infrastructure projects in New South Wales (Australia), the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and California (US). Questions such as how they implement requirements, the background behind them, how they organize their work and what barriers and success factors they came across has been discussed and analyzed.

One finding of the study is that all the interviewees have an ongoing process to develop and implement policies for carbon reductions in infrastructure projects. Ambitions are also raised over time. However, sometimes people are struggling with the LCA calculations and re-calculations of baselines and outcomes so that there’s a risk for less focus on actual measures for reductions.

The study also shows that there are a lot of carbon reduction measures implemented, but that they’re mostly driven by cost reductions, and not climate mitigation. On the other hand, this shows that carbon reductions and cost reductions can go hand in hand.

“Furthermore, procurement requirements are not an easy tool to work with because the organizations in construction projects are extremely complex. When talking about carbon reduction, there are a lot of processes which are affected and need to be changed in order to arrive at the goals that have been set up. Just because you set up a procurement requirement it doesn’t mean that behavior is going to change”, says Anna Kadefors, Research Coordinator for the Impres project and Professor at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.

Anna Kadefors

The research project has been co-funded by Construction Climate Challenge (CCC), the Swedish Research Council Formas through the Strong Research Environment ProcSIBE ,and the Mistra Carbon Exit research program. The research was jointly performed by project partners Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Lund University, WSP and Skanska.

 The Construction Climate Challenge (CCC) is an initiative hosted by Volvo Construction Equipment to promote sustainability throughout the entire construction industry value chain and provide funding for environmental research. The Construction Climate Challenge is a part of the Volvo CE commitment to WWF’s Climate Savers Program. Volvo Construction Equipment is a Corporate Advisory Board member of the World Green Building Council.

For more information about the Construction Climate Challenge, please visit 

For more information about the ProcSIBE project, please visit

For more information about Mistra Carbon Exit, please visit



Stefan Uppenberg

Q&A with Stefan Uppenberg

 What is this study about?

– The study is about how procurement requirements for carbon reduction can be implemented in infrastructure projects, and how this connects to national and organizational policy contexts in different countries.

What have you actually done?

– We have interviewed key partners on the client side and in the supply chain in some large infrastructure projects about how they implement requirements, the background behind it, how they organize the work, barriers and success factors etc. We have interviewed projects in Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, UK and USA and have also studied the carbon policy contexts in these countries to get a better understanding of the implementation strategies. And based on this we have analyzed the results in the light of previous research and have developed conclusions and recommendations in three areas: Policy level – national, regional and organizational; Procurement requirements – types, advantages, problems; and Innovation and learning aspects.

Who is the target group for this report?

– The main target group is decision-makers on the client side that are in charge of developing policies, procurement strategies and procurement requirements to reduce carbon emissions in the construction sector. Further, client and contractor project managers, environmental specialists and procurement staff responsible for implementing policies will be interested in experiences gained in similar initiatives in other countries.

What are your main findings in the study?

– We have seen that in all countries there is an ongoing process to develop and implement policies for carbon reduction in infrastructure projects, and ambitions are raised over time. In some cases, the development has initially been driven by a few dedicated individuals, but now there are frameworks and executive mandates in place that would make it hard to avoid commitments of carbon reductions.

There are also many examples of different ways of trying to procure low carbon solutions, and many tools for calculation are available. But we’re still early on. Goals and measures for carbon reductions are still new to many in the sector and a lot of projects and people are struggling with ‘how’. Much time is spent on calculations and re-calculations of baselines and outcomes, and there’s a risk that too much focus lands on calculations instead of measures for reductions.

A lot of good things and “standard” carbon reduction measures are implemented, like optimization of constructions, reuse of excavated material, cement clinker replacement to some extent etc. But this seems to be mostly driven by cost reductions, not climate mitigation. However, this also shows that carbon reduction measures can also reduce cost, and that requirements can help in putting focus on achieving even more of these potentials.

But we also see that expectations on innovations through general reduction requirements in very large projects may be too high. These projects are so complex as it is, which makes it difficult to risk testing new methods for higher carbon reductions. Therefore, there is a need for systematic innovation strategies on the industry level where pilots in smaller projects can be combined with implementation in larger projects.

To achieve this, it is important to break the silo-thinking in the sector and integrate the supply chain to find new methods to reach higher carbon reductions. And I feel hopeful in this since we in our case studies also saw good examples of the type of leadership and thinking needed to find new ways of working in collaborative alliances to really reduce the use of resources substantially.

Was there anything that surprised you about your findings?

– Maybe not surprised, but a deeper insight into the complexity of designing requirements that actually give the desired effect. Also, that it takes a very long time to spread knowledge and change mind-sets to start doing things in other ways than we have always done. And to achieve that, it takes strong leadership and endurance.

How can procurement requirements influence carbon reduction in infrastructure projects? What are the limitations? Why?

– Requirements are very important as a long-term framework, so the industry knows client ambitions and expectations well in advance. They are also good for driving implementation of measures that the supply chain knows reasonably well how to do. However, it is risky business to launch requirements designed based on high ambitions without knowing how to reach them. That creates uncertainty, administrative cost and less effect. You need to know what you want and have insight in desired mechanisms to reach the targets.

How can procurement requirements help drive innovation in infrastructure projects?

– High set goals and requirements can stimulate innovation but have to be accompanied by a willingness to take risks and much time and resources for supply chain collaboration to learn collectively how to reach them. It’s no quick fix for innovation. Many interviewees instead suggest systematic innovation in smaller projects where the risks are lower, combined by further testing and implementation in larger projects.

How important is the collaboration within the supply chain? How do you achieve that?

– It is obvious from the interviews that breaking of silo-thinking and integration of the supply chain is very important in order to reach greater carbon reductions. Collaborative contracting models can be a flexible option to encourage innovation and integrate knowledge of different participants. Also, long-term alliances allow for continuous learning and more transformational innovation. However, it should be emphasised that strong client leadership and commitment are essential to legitimise this and to achieve more fundamental behavioural change.

What should be considered next by the target groups you are referring to in this study from your perspective? What are your key recommendations?

– Set high-level goals and policies for carbon reduction in order to sanction ambitious initiatives that contribute to setting new industry standards.

Think one more time, and in more detail, about what you actually want to achieve when defining requirements. Be careful that the focus stays on carbon mitigation measures and ensure that requirements will be effective in influencing all relevant decision-makers in the supply chain.

Develop guidelines, tools and training programs to help build industry capabilities.

Establish systematic long-term innovation processes by combining small pilot projects with implementation in larger projects.

Enable and legitimise long-term, strategic collaborative alliances.

The project team has consisted of a combination of competencies from both academic institutions and the industry. What is your experience of a set-up like this?

– Extremely useful and important for cross-learning and for including different perspectives. But also challenging because of slightly different working methods and target groups.