Health: What’s the Formula for Sustainability in Pharma?

Article by Zeb Ahmed CEng FIChemE

Zeb Ahmed discusses the growing demand for sustainable built assets

OVER the past decade, attitudes to environmental performance in built assets have evolved from lip service, to recognition that addressing the climate crisis in the way we design and construct buildings is integral to their future viability. Previously energy efficiency has been low on pharma’s priorities list, as the product and the conditions in which they are created, dispensed, and packaged are all highly regulated and have taken priority. This has led to the sector being one of the most significant CO2 emission contributors, with total global emissions estimated in the region of 48–52m t/y of CO2e.

Depending on the size and type of facility, energy accounts for 60–80% of the annual running costs of controlled pharmaceutical environments, predominately due to the HVAC systems involved in the manufacturing process. As it stands, there is no mandatory guidance in place for pharmaceutical companies to reduce their energy consumption and carbon emissions. However, there are several catalysts for change and, as the delivery cycle of a construction project in the pharmaceutical industry can take several years from concept to commissioning, companies currently considering projects for development not only need to factor in existing regulatory requirements, punitive measures, and energy costs – they also need to anticipate what lies ahead.

So, what are the drivers for improved environmental performance for built assets in the pharmaceutical sector and how can we work collaboratively to ensure reduced environmental impact is embedded in projects from concept and throughout the design and delivery phases?

More often, the shorter-term business goals take precedent over the longer-term environmental objectives

Counting the cost of energy inefficiency

Perhaps the most commercially pressing issue is cost. Energy price rises have been grabbing the headlines and, with industry unable to benefit from any of the price caps provided to help consumers, specification decisions made now could have a significant impact on operational costs and viability over the next few years. Historically, pharma has accepted that high energy use is inevitable. Indeed, many facilities have been over-specified in the name of futureproofing and resilience.

For some time, those of us responsible for designing pharmaceutical facilities have been pushing for culture change, encouraging clients to change the focus from capex costs to whole-life costs by making choices that will reduce energy consumption. Smart design strategies and digital modelling tools that can provide a clear and accurate evidence-based business case for long-term savings ought to be enough to drive positive change. But sustainability-driven processes, building services and architectural solutions can often be more expensive at capex; these investments should be modelled over the 15-25 year asset lifecycle cost. More often, the shorter-term business goals take precedent over the longer-term environmental objectives. However, with the recent spike in energy prices, concerns about future cost volatility, and issues around reliability of supply, we might finally begin to see investment decisions that prioritise energy efficiency to drive down costs over the asset’s lifespan.

Even if a project is too capex constrained to improve sustainability at initial design and construction, part of the engineer’s role when designing a project is to consider how design strategies can allow for retrofitting of energy efficient improvements during the service life of the asset as funds become available or energy prices rise.

Mandatory improvement

Mandatory carbon reduction plans (CRPs) are already required for any public sector projects valued at £5m (US$5.7m) or more and, based on the premise that regulatory measures imposed on the public sector are often rolled out to the private sector too, those considering pharma development projects should start preparing now for CRP accountability. Large UK companies are now having to report on their UK energy use and carbon emissions. Limited companies that meet any two of the following criteria – a turnover of £36m, an £18m balance sheet and/or 250 employees – are now required to report on energy and carbon consumption as part of their annual financial reporting.

Returning to the theme of differentiating between lip service and credible positive impacts, CRPs need to be deliverable and measurable, with a clear baseline from which defined carbon reduction goals can be monitored and achieved. Alongside the likelihood that CRPs will be introduced for private sector-built assets, legislation in place to drive environmental best practice for commercial facilities, such as the Climate Change Levy (CCL) and the EU Emissions Trading Systems (EU ETS), is also likely to become stricter. Therefore, for pharma companies planning developments there is a dual threat if sustainability is not fully considered as part of the design process. In addition to a regulatory obligation to demonstrate the steps being taken to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, future measures look set to include financial penalties for failures to achieve carbon reduction, or substantiate that reduction.

Article by Zeb Ahmed CEng FIChemE


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