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Road to net-zero: the challenges and opportunities for water

Today, the water industry became the world's first sector to launch a collective plan to deliver net zero carbon emissions by 2030. As co-chair of the Water UK Carbon Group, Anglian Water’s chief executive Peter Simpson shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on the route to net-zero.

2020 will go down in history. Not only as the year the world fought a battle with a global pandemic which shook our physical, social and economic way of life to the core right across the globe, but also hopefully as a pivotal moment on an even bigger issue. The battle against climate change.

There’s widespread recognition that Covid, having torn apart our normal way of life, should be a catalyst for positive change. The calls for a green recovery are coming from every direction – from President Elect Joe Biden’s commitment for the US to re-join the Paris Agreement, to Boris Johnson’s green recovery  agenda, and Prince Charles’ calls for a ‘Marshall-like plan’ to combat climate change. Both the need, and will, to act now to secure a resilient future has never been clearer.

Of course, underpinning both battles there lies one common resource – water. Critical to all our lives and never more in the spotlight than at the moment for health, hygiene, and hand washing. Yet it’s estimated that England could see a shortfall of at least 3.4 billion litres of water a day by 2050 as a result of climate change and population growth. Nowhere is this stark projection more relevant than in the East of England – the driest part of the country, and the region where Anglian Water operates.

Today signals a defining moment for the UK water industry in mitigating its contribution to climate change. Today we become, we believe, the first sector in the world to launch a net-zero 2030 routemap, our blueprint, for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Water companies are energy-intensive businesses, especially those in flat, low lying areas like the East of England where both water and wastewater need to be pumped before being treated and recycled back to the environment.

Anglian Water is one of the largest users of electricity in our region. But thanks to our efforts in recent years, we are also now one of the largest producers of renewable energy in the region. Together with other companies, we’ve estimated that the sector could achieve savings of up to 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, and reach net-zero two decades earlier than the UK government’s legally binding target for 2050.

But there are no silver bullets for success, and time is short. As Lord Deben expressed at the recent water industry Social Contract Summit – “climate change will not wait for us.” This will be a difficult journey, and we don’t yet have all the answers.  But we at Anglian are absolutely committed to build on the progress we have already made to reduce both our day-to-day operational emissions, and those embodied in our capital projects and other investments.

Achieving net-zero is fundamental to our purpose as a water company, which is to bring environmental and social prosperity to the region we serve. Put simply, climate change threatens both. But we also we can’t do this alone, and the time for collective action is now.

What does achieving net-zero mean in practice? If we are going to meet our targets we’ll need to supercharge out efforts to drive down emissions and deliver even more efficient services and performance for customers.

We’ll be more efficient with our waste water processes and energy use – reducing emissions from pumping, treatment, maintenance and transport. Achieving this by producing and storing more of our own electricity from our solar and wind projects, generating even more low carbon fuels like biogas to heat homes and power our vehicle fleet, reducing leakage, to world leading levels and pursuing nature-based solutions to engineering challenges – using plants, soils and bugs rather than chemicals, concrete and steel.

By using virtual reality, data science and artificial intelligence we can design out carbon in new infrastructure and optimise asset performance. And we’ll be thinking differently about using the by-products we make, like the waste heat generated from wastewater, and using this to heat greenhouses and potentially homes too.

We’ll also be working to reduce the strain on water networks by helping customers to waste less water. Anglian Water alone will be installing more than 700,000 upgraded water meters in the next five years, but more than that, we want to encourage the development of new standards for housing development that makes saving water just as important as saving energy. 

And we’ll be supporting the further development of robust, local carbon markets to not only offset our own carbon emissions to reach net-zero but also deliver improvements to the local environment at the same time.

There are no quick fixes, making further progress will be progressively more difficult. That is why it is so important that this is a shared, sector-wide challenge, where we can collaborate, innovate, and succeed. Now is the time for investment – in the infrastructure, technology and skills we need to realise a resilient and secure future, for our region and for our planet.

Topic: Policy & Regulation , Sustainability & social value
Tags: climate change , zero-carbon , sustainability , environment

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