Water UK, representing water and wastewater companies across the country, has set the ambitious target for the water industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. Here, we look at the details of the plan and the challenges the sector must overcome to accomplish this objective.
Each day, the UK water industry supplies 15 billion litres of water and treats the sewage from over 28 million properties. These are energy intensive activities and as a result, the sector produces millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Despite an impressive 45% reduction in emissions since 2011, the operations of the water sector still account for almost a third of the UK’s industrial and waste process emissions.
Water UK’s Net Zero 2030 Routemap sets the objective for water companies to achieve net zero operational emissions by 2030, two decades ahead of the target established for the UK as a whole. The Water UK plan, which is the first of its kind in the world, details the sources of emissions within the sector and explains why a business-as-usual approach will not be sufficient to achieve the levels of CO2 reduction required. Its analysis suggests that continuing with the current approach will only result in a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
The Net Zero 2030 Routemap includes a 10 point plan consisting of six commitments from the water industry and four recommendations for the Government and other stakeholders.
In addition to scaling up techniques and technologies that are already in use, the Routemap details specific areas where changes need to be made to enable the sector to reach the net zero objective. Water UK’s analysis suggests that implementing the following changes could decarbonise the sector by up to 95% by 2030.
- Saving water – this includes accelerating leakage reduction by up to 7% beyond existing 2030 forecasts and a further 6 litres per person per day reduction in water use.
- Renewable energy – using wind and solar power to meet as much as 80% of water companies’ electricity needs and using biogas from wastewater for process heat requirements.
- Energy efficiency – renewing equipment in energy intensive areas of the treatment process to achieve higher efficiencies.
- Exporting energy –surplus power and biomethane should be exported for use in other sectors to reduce costs and help achieve wider decarbonisation.
- New vehicles – moving away from fossil fuel powered operational and maintenance vehicles to those that run on low carbon fuels such as electricity and biogas.
- Process emissions – effective monitoring of process emissions and investment in new solutions.
- Planting trees, restoring habitats and deploying natural solutions – switching to carbon-retaining uses of land to enable carbon to be sequestered and meeting new treatment demands using nature-based solutions.
- Developing offsets – establishing a market for businesses to obtain offsets to mitigate more challenging areas of wastewater treatment decarbonisation.
Challenges to Net Zero by 2030
The targets contained in the Routemap are ambitious and the sector will have to overcome a number of potential obstacles to achieve what has been set out. Among the key factors is the relatively short time frame in which to reach these targets. While there has been significant progress, especially in the last decade, the plan notes that it will require a move beyond business as usual. To achieve net zero by 2030 will require the first steps to be taken quickly and for the pace of change to gather momentum over the coming decade.
Another issue will be that many of the easiest actions to reduce emissions have already been taken. While this has been very positive for the sector, it means that the next phase of decarbonisation will require innovative solutions from across the water industry. In fact, the Routemap highlights that the sector does not yet have all the answers to the issues it is facing and to achieve the goals that have been set may require completely new approaches.
Furthermore, decarbonisation of the water sector by the end of the decade will, in part, depend on other sectors and the rest of the UK. The Government is in a position to drive substantial improvements in water usage by implementing minimum standards for new homes and water using appliances. Similarly, the Routemap goals depend on widespread use of reliable renewable energy and the development of suitable vehicles that use alternative fuels. Therefore, the renewable energy and automotive sectors each have a role to play.
Relatedly, it will be important to work with a wide range of stakeholders to communicate the importance of what the sector aims to achieve and their role in reaching that goal. For example, under catchment-first approaches, water companies must collaborate with farmers and other landowners to minimise the pollution that enters water courses. Similarly, trade effluent discharge permits for businesses may have to be tightened, effectively making businesses more responsible for the treatment of the wastewater they produce. Without effective communication, this decision may not be fully understood and therefore not receive the level of support that might be possible with the right approach.
The scale of the task ahead means that it will be important for water companies to partner with water treatment technology suppliers who can help them to develop the required solutions. At Veolia Water Technologies, we have already invested heavily in developing a wide range of energy efficient treatment processes as well as systems for biogas production and phosphorus recovery. Our expert team can assist at every stage from the design and specification of new systems to the ongoing maintenance and optimisation of an existing plant.
Click here to find out more about the services and technologies we offer for the municipal water sector.
About the Author
Peter Brewer currently operates as Business Director for Veolia Water Technologies UK. Peter is instrumental in the development and execution of Technology Projects, heading up teams in site management, project management and more. He is responsible for managers and engineers alike, maintaining and facilitating multiple facets of the company.