Spanish giant claims to be the world’s first global carbon-neutral construction company. So what did it take?
“It’s like a diet programme.
“The first 10 kg you can reduce very easily, but we’re now [working on] the last 3 kg.”
Construction News is talking to Acciona’s head of sustainability Juan Ramón Silva.
The €6bn-turnover contractor has made great strides in recent years, claiming to have become the first global construction group to be carbon-neutral.
The Spanish infrastructure and energy giant has been working for five years to cut emissions and achieve that goal of neutrality – no simple task when you work in more than 40 countries around the world.
And, as Mr Silva says, the hard work is only just beginning.
Acciona’s journey towards carbon neutrality began two years ago, when its executive chairman José Manuel Entrecanales made the commitment at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015.
The firm announced it had achieved carbon neutrality in 2016 by putting in place a robust sustainability masterplan – and the man in charge of overseeing that journey is head of sustainability Mr Silva.
“Last year was our first as carbon-neutral,” he says. “[The target] posed a challenge for us in how to become neutral, for a company as big as ours in sectors where it is not so easy to become neutral like infrastructure. After we decided to become a company that focues on mitigation and adaption to [climate change], we started working on how to get there.”
The headline figures are striking. In the past five years, Acciona has reduced its carbon emissions by 43 per cent, and anything it cannot reduce it offsets to reach that aim of neutrality.
“The most important thing for us is co-ordination. We don’t want one kind of sustainability in Australia, and a different kind in Chile”
Juan Ramón Silva, Acciona
The contractor developed a wide-ranging sustainability masterplan to get to this point, which Mr Silva describes as “horizontal, applying to the company in every country in all operations”.
Acciona works in more than 40 countries around the world. Many of these have well-developed regulatory frameworks for the environment and sustainability, such as the UK, Spain, Canada, Australia and Norway. Other countries like Brazil, Chile and India, however, pose different challenges.
“The most important thing for us is co-ordination, in the sense that we want to make it work homogenously. We don’t want one kind of sustainability in Australia, and a different kind in Chile, for example,” Mr Silva says. “We have minimum standards – legality is not a question. But in these 40 countries, we have an Acciona way, and the sustainability part of that is well structured and well communicated to managers in every country.”
Changing client attitudes
For a global firm like Acciona, this is proving crucial. The desire to become carbon-neutral is not being done solely out of some altruistic vision of a better world – it’s a business imperative, too.
Acciona Legacy Way Tunnel Brisbane
Mr Silva cites the example of Norway, which has big infrastructure spending plans but wants the delivery to be carbon-neutral wherever possible. Accordingly, Accoina believes it will be more competitive in markets like this.
“You’d be surprised by the change,” Mr Silva says. “Three or four years ago, you wouldn’t see [detailed sustainability] in the presentation to a new client; this year already, we’ve done a lot.
“Clients are asking for our sustainability track record. On all the bid application forms, you have at least two or three pages dealing with sustainability issues. I work directly with our business development people in infrastructure as these are already required in many infrastructure projects.”
This has included work in the UK, where Acciona has made steps into infrastructure while working in joint venture with British contractors.
A JV alongside Sisk and Lagan Construction Group was one of five bidders that missed out on High Speed 2’s seven civils works packages, worth billions of pounds, while a JV with Clancy Docwra was also eyeing up the £260m Barking Riverside extension for Transport for London, though did not make it onto the shortlist.
“I work directly with our business development people in infrastructure as these are already required in many infrastructure projects”
Juan Ramón Silva, Acciona
The firm has also been looking at work with Highways England, where sustainability has played a major part in bidding. “I presented to Highways England in London,” Mr Silva says. “It was very long and they were very interested in the sustainability part. Some years ago, maybe not – but now [it] stands on the same level as the technical and economic parts.
“They’re [undertaking] more rigorous scrutiny of our track record and operations, and we do the same to them. The needle is only moving one way, not the other.”
How do UK contractors stack up in sustainability terms, then? Mr Silva is hesitant to make direct comparisons, arguing that he is “not very aware” of how they stack up in many areas, although he does proudly cite its place in last year’s Dow Jones Sustainability Index and other league tables as evidence that they are performing well when judged against other multinational companies on a global scale.
In the UK, he points out that we have “French companies, or Swedish companies, working here, the same as us”, referring to Bouygues and Skanska. “The same guys will go to the bids in many countries. We think we are in a very good position in relation to sustainability issues.”
And on its joint venture partners in Britain, Acciona has taken an active role in seeking partners that will work with it on sustainability – and expects to see those partners looking at them as well. “They already do it,” Mr Silva adds.
Supply chain cut by 9,000
As well as internal measures, Mr Silva emphasises the role of the supply chain in achieving Acciona’s carbon-neutral status. “We work very hard with our supply chain,” he says. “All suppliers, to get qualified [to work with us], must give us a lot of information.”
Acciona asks them about their ESG risks: environmental, social and governance. It measures the CO2 and water footprints of 19,000 of its suppliers, finding that 500 of them are responsible for 75 per cent of the supply chain’s emissions.
Acciona Faro composite Valencia 4
Two years, Acciona had 28,000 suppliers; now that number is 19,000. “This was due to our digitalisation effort, just because we digitalised the system of the requirements we make. That means we have more transparent and clearer control of our suppliers.
“It’s much easier for us to get a read on the suppliers we don’t want to work with, that are less aligned with our company policies of sustainability. Aligned with these policies, we not only make stricter requirements of them, but we also offer them sustainability courses to work with them – especially the heavier suppliers to reduce their emissions.
“As you may know, you are also responsible for part of the emissions of your suppliers. We have to work with them if we want to reduce the supply chain’s emissions.”
Thinking a decade ahead
Of course, not all CO2 emissions can be cut out entirely, or even reduced. For Acciona to achieve its carbon-neutral status, these must be offset.
Rather than just purchasing carbon credits on the open market, though, the firm has taken a targeted approach, only buying compensation certificates from the United Nations. The UN acts as a broker, providing certificates that help fund projects in the developing world – like a wind farm in Mexico, for example.
“It’s not just about the mathematical result of buying energy that pays for your emissions,” Mr Silva explains. “The projects must contribute to the sustainable development of the country in which they’re placed. It has to have social initiatives tied to the money of that project, ongoing. Otherwise they do not get the certificates.”
The company is now developing its targets for 2030, already thinking more than 10 years ahead. And this is the main message Mr Silva wants to share with his counterparts at other contractors, large and small.
Juan ramon silva acciona
“You must consider the long term – there’s no way this is something you can delay for tomorrow,” he says. “When you speak about climate change, or the way a company contributes to sustainability, it’s an urgent issue.
“We know it by heart, really, because we see how climate change is affecting budgets, the expenses of countries, the financial risks, the resistance of materials in projects – this is a day-to-day experience.
“The decisions we take in the next two-and-a-half years will have an impact for us all for the next century. From that, you can follow a long string of consequences.”
It’s a strong message, and shows the commitment to long-term thinking on sustainability that Acciona has put at the centre of its organisation. But despite impressive achievements already, Mr Silva’s diet analogy reflects a belief that there is still a lot of work to do.
“The road ahead is much harder than the road behind,” he adds.
Innovation has played a crucial role in helping Acciona reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral.
The firm has three innovation centres in Spain: one dedicated to construction materials in Madrid; another for water innovation (developing desalination technology, for example) in Barcelona; and another for renewable energy in Pamplona, northern Spain.
The company has been working with nanofibres and carbon fibre to develop new composite materials that are lighter, meaning they are less CO2-intensive to transport, as well as more resistant to climate change.
“We built the first lighthouse made from nanofibres in Valencia,” Mr Silva says. “It was a requirement for it to have a longer useful life – unlike traditional materials, these composite materials are much less affected by corrosion, and climate change as well. The light’s energy is generated by 10 solar panels, and we have a vertical axis wind turbine that contributes to that as well.”
Other innovative projects include a 3D-printed bridge in the Acciona’s home town of Alcobendas near Madrid, and the Legacy Way Tunnel in Brisbane, Australia, where conveyor belts were used to remove spoil without the need for vehicle or track movements.