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Breaking ground? Delivering Net Zero

This blog originally appeared in 'Delivering Net Zero' a major essay collection published by Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, and WSP, the leading engineering professional services firm

Water runs our world. Yet in our day to day lives we barely give it a second thought. That is sure to change as the effects of climate change take hold.

Already this year a record high temperature of 18.3 ̊C has been recorded in Antarctica, at the north west tip of the continent, one of the fastest warming regions on Earth. I had the privilege of travelling there with scientists from the British Antarctic Survey almost 20 years ago, to interview the world-leading British experts studying the effects of the changing climate.

They now estimate that since the 1950s, a total of 28,000km2 of ice shelf has been lost from this area – in volume, that’s the equivalent of the UK’s household water needs for more than 1,000 years.

These are unprecedented times and the world has completely changed in just a few months – perhaps permanently. Given the unique circumstances it is only right that we have directed our attention and our resources to tackling the coronavirus outbreak. However, while our focus might be on this current crisis, we must not lose momentum in tackling the existential crisis that is climate change. We simply can’t afford to.

COP 26 may have been delayed but it still represents a huge opportunity for the UK to demonstrate leadership, ambition and determination in the race to tackle climate change. The UK Government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is an important step forward, and now a concerted effort across the entire economy will be needed to deliver on this commitment. For its part, the water industry stands ready to play a key role and has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions for the whole sector by 2030.

English water companies announced this ambitious goal in April 2019 – a transparent and definitive pledge that no other sector has matched.  And the water companies in England will be working closely towards this 2030 goal with their counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have their own commitments on decarbonisation. The water industry is the first industrial sector in the UK – and possibly the world - to commit to a net zero carbon future by this early date.

As custodians of a commodity so essential to all our lives, water companies know their role is key. The Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, last year delivered a stark warning of the very real risk of the country running out of water within 25 years due to a warming climate and a growing population. Water companies are acutely aware of this existential challenge and are determined to act to address it.

Our 2030 net zero carbon commitment demonstrates the industry’s ambition on decarbonisation, but water companies already have a strong history of leadership on this issue. Take, for example, the industry-wide standardised process of carbon accounting, which requires companies to detail exactly how much carbon they emit and what form this takes. In place for the last decade, this will provide an important baseline of data for future decisions.

Now the industry is taking its first significant step on the journey to net zero, announcing a major project, working with two international consultancies, Ricardo and Mott MacDonald, to develop the comprehensive action plan that will help us reach this ambitious goal over the next decade.

There is no shortage of questions and challenges along the way, to take just a few: how will we deal with the emissions from the biological breakdown of sewage during the treatment process? What role will land management play? What is the right pace and approach for greening fleet vehicles?

There are no easy answers but that won’t stop us from driving forward with pace and passion. It won’t be a route map that sets out a ‘one size fits all’ course. In the water sector, companies can face very different challenges, depending among other things on their location and population.  Northumbrian Water, for example, is in a relatively wet, sparsely populated area of the country, unlike the far drier areas served by Anglian or Affinity Water.

So, each company will have its own route and methodology for reaching the net zero target with the overarching action plan providing a framework to shape the approach.

And there’s much work already underway. Renewable energy has been an area of significant focus. Anglian Water recently completed the company’s largest solar array at its recycling plant in Jaywick, Essex. The 3,312 solar panels will reduce carbon emissions by over 300 tonnes in the first year.[5] And Yorkshire Water’s £72m energy and recycling facility at Knostrop wastewater treatment works in Leeds creates enough electricity to run 55% of the site, the equivalent of powering 7,600 homes. There are huge opportunities for the sector to generate renewable energy through existing assets.

Many companies, including SES Water and Northumbrian Water, are increasingly using electric vehicles at their sites and in their fleets, while others are also turning to green finance to ensure their investments support their sustainability agenda. Yorkshire Water launched the world’s first Stirling sustainability bond last year and has now raised more than £800 million under its new Sustainable Finance Framework. In 2018, South West Water signed £80 million worth of green financing deals with Société Générale and Natwest.

The water industry is also a large landowner - collectively, water companies in England own 140,000 hectares of land.The recent Climate Change Committee (CCC) report set out the need for a radical rethink on land use, and the water sector is keen to work with the CCC on this agenda. The importance of effective management of this land is essential for the sector to meet its carbon commitment. The industry has announced plans to plant 11 million trees by 2030, and many water companies are working closely with partners to protect peatland, an invaluable ecosystem and an important store for carbon.

There is much to do to deliver on this ambitious goal for the sector. It will require innovation and collaboration across all companies in the wider sector, including contractors and suppliers. The industry is well-positioned to play a key role in decarbonisation, working with the UK government and other sectors too.

Water plays a central role in our lives and in the past, present and future of this blue planet that we all live on.  The industry intends to do its part to tackle climate change and contribute to a sustainable future for generations to come.