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Beyond COP26 – a call to action 

Over the last few months, a series of weekly roundtables (organised by Dods Impact and sponsored by Water UK and other organisations) took place at Westminster to discuss the legacy of COP26.   

The discussions covered a wide range of topics, including placemaking, nature, innovation, economy, and people. We were able to talk to 14 MPs and Peers over the course of those nearly 8 hours’ worth of discussions, on some really pressing issues facing the sector and, indeed, the future of the planet.  You can read the full Call to Action report here 

The key thing we wanted to leave with those in the room was that we need to fundamentally change how we think about water, and the water industry, when it comes to policymaking, regulation, and increasing the UK’s resilience to climate change.  

Water usually features in policy debate and decision-making when there is either too much (flooding) or not enough (heatwaves) of the stuff, and rarely, if at all, in between.  

This means… 

Reducing water demand  

We know that England risks running out of water by 2050 unless progress is made in reducing demand, cutting leakage, and building new supply assets, like reservoirs – all of which we are progressing towards. However, water companies cannot do this on our own. We need consumers, regulators, heavy water users, housing developers and, above all, Government to play their part too.  

Government must use all tools at its disposal to reduce water demand. There are some quick wins - higher water efficiency standards in building regulations, and a mandatory water label with minimum efficiency standards on water using products, like dishwashers and washing machines, and fixtures and fittings, like taps and showerheads. These approaches aren’t revolutionary – they’ve been used to improve energy efficiency for decades and, above all, they work and are incredibly cost- effective.  

Improving flood risk and surface water management  

Rainwater should be kept out of the public sewer by creating more Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) and implementing other nature-based solutions. The storms last winter and the ongoing debate about the health of our rivers serve as a visible reminder of the shortcomings of our current approach to surface water drainage and flood risk management.  

Policymaking is needlessly lagging behind the curve. Fourteen years on from the Pitt Review, housing developers in England still automatically connect surface water to the public sewers in lieu of SuDs. Instead, water companies’ customers are footing the bill to build concrete tanks, and other carbon-intensive solutions, to take effluent which doesn’t need sewage treatment into an already strained drainage system. Climate change and a growing population will place greater pressures on drainage infrastructure so we must really be thinking twice about what we do connect to our sewers and whether there are better, more natural ways to manage the surface water.  

Accelerating decarbonisation of the sector’s operations  

We are pleased that the water industry is ahead of the game on decarbonisation, but that is no cause for complacency. We outlined a trajectory to net zero by 2030 in our Routemap, and our Annual Emissions Report shows that net emissions have fallen 29% since our 2018/19 baseline.  

But this is just the low hanging fruit; we know there’s more for companies, regulators and decision-makers to do to deliver the early and significant contribution to the UK’s 2050 target we outlined in our Net Zero 2030 Routemap. For example, Government can explicitly instruct economic regulators to accelerate net zero efforts or tackling process emissions to avoid leaving key sectors in the lurch over the investment required for their decarbonisation plans through to 2030.  

Enabling increased renewable generation  

The water industry is energy intensive – making up 2% of the UK’s total energy demand. We use this energy to treat and pump huge volumes of water around the country.  However, water companies are also energy companies in that they are generating increasing amounts of renewable electricity from Combined Heat and Power (CHP), solar and wind from their own operations. The more companies generate, the less they rely on the power grid and this frees up capacity that will help increase the UK’s energy resilience – which is a national priority given the war in Ukraine.  

We need policymakers to really go for it to realise these kinds of synergies – the kind which benefit UK energy security, accelerate renewable regeneration, and benefit water customers as the cost efficiencies are passed onto reduce pressures on household bills. To do this, we need to see a relaxation of planning rules for onshore wind generation for utility providers, particularly at remote sites like sewage works.   

Green gas is another area where the water industry, were it included within the Green Gas Support Scheme (GGSS), can more than produce the Government’s national target. This exclusion has meant that water companies are beginning to invest new CHP assets instead because they are more economically viable at this point, despite the greater energy generation potential Green Gas offers.  

Watch this space 

What came across most in the discussions was the urgency with which we need to implement these kinds of solutions to ‘keep 1.5 alive’. The Climate Change Committee says that a clear set of policies is needed to achieve this as the current trajectory is for 2 degrees of warming. Government must stick to their guns, and enable net zero delivery to ‘keep 1.5 alive’.   

As a sector, we committed to decarbonising with agility in our thinking and actions. To reflect this, we are already in the process of developing a more expansive and adaptable net zero routemap. Additionally, we will shortly be publishing a new report that will highlight how policymakers can make the most of the water sector offer as we strive towards net zero, so watch this space.