Australians inherently understand the critical importance of water to the wellbeing of our communities, environment and the economy. The increasing impact of bushfires, drought and also floods together with expanding urban development is acknowledged by the urban water sector in its response to the challenges of climate change and population growth.
The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) has stated that they support the national Water Reform 2020 Draft Report from the Productivity Commission and that the overarching goal for the National Water Initiative needs to be updated to reference climate change in addition to recognising the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in water resource management.
WSP delivers some of the largest water and wastewater projects and programs across Australia. Being future focused and taking action to prepare for this future, WSP Senior Water Treatment Engineers Tanu Kaur and Matt Lyon have developed an insightful report ‘A Pathway to Carbon Neutrality in the Australian Water Industry’.
Their research included identifying relevant policies, carbon reduction trends in the water industry, and the existing tools which are available to assist in decision making. In developing the technical paper capturing the state of the industry, the team also interviewed water utilities and industry bodies to understand current challenges and opportunities that face the Australian water industry when it comes to reaching net zero.
In reviewing the position of climate policy within Australia, the team identified variability across State and Territory governments in regard to a carbon neutral target for the water industry. Currently there is a range of climate policies on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 from aspirational state-based targets through to legislated reductions specific to individual water utilities.
“Every State and Territory government in Australia now have a 2050 net zero emissions target,” explains Matt. “While some State governments have invoked legislation, others have settled on aspirational targets and the impact of the differences of these policies on the water industry is significant. Because utilities are regulated by state-based pricing regulators, our clients are telling us that when there is no state-legislated target, only cost-positive carbon reduction projects are obtaining regulatory approval. This limits the ability of utilities to implement significant carbon emissions reductions.
“The water industry is complex, made up on many different water providers in Australia, with different regulatory bodies, demographics and diverse technical challenges. However, as the industry is largely government run, it is a non-competitive market with water and sewage prices largely being set by economic regulators. As a result, the water industry is uniquely positioned to share knowledge such as emissions reductions strategies, risks and opportunities.”
Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
To get an understanding of the size of the challenge, Matt and Tanu looked at the major emissions from utilities reported via the national Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions reporting scheme. Matt says, “Within water utilities, wastewater treatment is one of the largest and most challenging sources of emissions. Not only because of the high energy use but also because of the gases that are emitted from these plants such as methane and nitrous oxide. Although not reported under the national GHG emissions reporting scheme, Scope 3 emissions are also a major emissions source due to the need for transportation of solid wastes and chemicals in addition to embodied energy in pipelines and structures.
“State governments are under pressure to reduce emissions in their water businesses as the water industry can make a significant contribution to reducing government emissions As is the case in Victoria where at 24 per cent, water infrastructure (wastewater, supply and other water) is responsible for the largest proportion of government emissions. The Victorian state government has mandated that water businesses be carbon neutral by 2030, with specific reductions for regional and metropolitan water utilities.”
The Journey to Net Zero
To drill down into the specific challenges that water utilities face in the journey to net zero, the research team held discussions with representatives from leading water utilities across Australia, as well as Water Research Australia and the Water Services Association of Australia.
Tanu says, “It was interesting to see the range of answers from water utilities when posed questions on policies, targets, practices, hurdles and the future state of emissions reductions.
“Despite various water businesses, even within the one state being at different points on the pathway to carbon neutrality, key themes in our discussions did emerge.