Water and net zero: could the industry go even further?

The UK water industry is aiming for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – the first sector of the economy with such an ambitious target. But could it do more? Could water companies help to change other parts of society and support the nation as a whole on our journey to net zero? WSP’s research suggests customers would support them if they did.

Impressive progress

Water companies are already acting to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from their operations and mitigate the remaining emissions through interventions in the natural environment. In their own operations they are generating renewable energy, switching to electric vehicles, improving energy efficiency and reducing leakage. Elsewhere they are restoring peat moorland to capture carbon and manage water flow, and they are planning to plant 11 million new trees by 2030 to absorb CO2. Innovative approaches, like EnTrade, support farmers to maintain good water quality – thus saving operational and embedded carbon.

The industry is also working on tackling tougher challenges. These include capturing methane and nitrous oxides – more potent greenhouses gases than CO2 – released during wastewater treatment. Others involve lowering the flow of water in sewerage systems to reduce demand for energy-intensive treatment – by cutting groundwater infiltration and separating rainwater from foul wastewater through sustainable drainage systems.

Room for improvement

The results of the industry’s efforts to date are borne out by the statistics. In 2006 the water industry was estimated to contribute about 1% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. By 2008, the Environment Agency, working with WaterWise, estimated this had reduced to 0.8% - a substantial drop considering emissions had also reduced generally over that period - and was still falling. But when the carbon footprint of heating water in the home was taken into account, this figure increased to 5.5%.

Would focussing on reducing the volume of water that is heated – through domestic water efficiency measures – provide a greater benefit for the planet than chasing ever-smaller reductions in emissions from the water industry itself?
Martin Osborne Technical Director - Water, WSP

Many water companies already have significant programmes installing water-efficient fittings for existing domestic properties. WSP has supported Essex and Suffolk Water’s award-winning Every Drop Counts programme over many years. Since the start of our work in 2014, we successfully completed 14,000 home visits and retrofits. Participating customers each saved on average 24.3 litres per day – an annual average saving of 8,869 litres each. 

To date, however, such schemes have concentrated on conserving water resources, rather than cutting carbon, and there is still insufficient long-term monitoring to show whether they could help achieve net zero. 

Motivated by the environment

Are customers really interested in saving water to cut carbon, rather than simply to cut their bills? Our research suggests they are. 

When we asked 1,000 residents across the UK what would motivate them to save water, the environment came out top: 33% picked the option ‘doing something good for the environment’ while 31% chose ‘to keep water bills low’. Why not, then, emphasise all the environmental benefits – carbon reduction included – of water efficiency?
Martin Osborne Technical Director - Water, WSP

What’s really important, though, is that any anticipated carbon savings must become reality and must be reported back to customers to make clear the impact of their actions. This isn’t yet the case with energy efficiency in new-build homes, as one essay in the recent collection ‘Delivering net zero, building Britain’s resilient recovery’ published by WSP and Bright Blue pointed out. The snagging list for a new property, the essay highlighted, would include items such as a wonky light switch or a dodgy paint job but would completely miss whether it achieved its targets for energy efficiency. This means that gaps between design and performance are being missed.

Efficiency checks

Is the same true for water efficiency? Some water companies incentivise developers to build water-efficient properties using a rebate of the infrastructure charge. But nobody checks whether what gets built is as water efficient as the designs indicated it would be. Could water companies plug this gap? Backed by a revised planning process that focused on what is delivered rather than what is designed, could they check new properties really are water efficient? 

The UK water industry’s ambition to achieve net zero for its operations by 2030 is impressive. Now that great leadership should be used as a platform to help the whole of society achieve the same goal.

Read more from our Value of Water researchContact Martin
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