Looking to reach real net zero? Look at your water usage
This article was first published in Forbes
It’s getting harder and harder for organisations to meaningfully cut their carbon. For most businesses all the easy wins have already happened or are in progress. And real carbon reduction means cutting down on usage, not just offsetting and hoping the rest will take care of itself.
Looking at how you use water might not be the most obvious route to cutting carbon. But if you look at your water usage and carbon in parallel, you can start to make some real inroads on both.
Making water efficiencies could collectively cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12 million tonnes over the next eight years, according to our recent research.
Getting and using water sustainably is a challenge that’s only getting more urgent. An increasing number of climate events are impacting supply chains because of floods, droughts and water scarcity. Meanwhile geo-political events, like the war in Ukraine, are also directly impacting global supply chains.
All this means a near future defined by resource scarcity. In this world, competition stops being about the customers you can attract, and is more about who can reach which resources.
Businesses need to fundamentally shift how they think about water
Firstly, businesses need to bring carbon into the conversation on water: recognising that water efficiencies will help to cut greenhouse gases, and taking concrete steps now to help achieve that.
Global companies based in water-stressed regions need to be at the forefront of these efforts. Not only because it will be harder to access water, but also because these regions are most likely to suffer the extremes of climate change, with more risk of floods and droughts. It calls for a responsible ESG stance beyond just the environmental impact.
Secondly, businesses need to be looking at the bigger picture of how they use water, right across the supply chain. It’s a complex eco-system, where everything is interlinked. Incremental changes in parts of the business won’t shift the dial. Joined-up thinking will.
Finally, we all need to move away from the idea that water is a resource that belongs to an organisation. Instead, organisations need to come together to find innovative solutions: using less water, decarbonising water. Collaboration is the only realistic option for the future. And it opens up options for interesting partnerships, between stakeholders who might make for an obvious team.
The good news is that if you’re willing to shift your mindset, there’s plenty businesses can do differently. Here are three starting points that need to be on your sustainability agenda.
Invest in technology and innovation
Data can push commitment to net zero beyond a commitment alone – it’s a key part of the solution and facilitates action and change. For example, carbon data systems allow users to compare and integrate datasets, accurately forecast scenarios for reducing emissions and visualise results. That makes it easier to engage, inform and empower senior decision makers to take the right actions.
Start out by mapping your ecosystem. What parts of the supply chain and business are generating the biggest emissions? Have any current solutions been effective in reducing emissions or is further innovation needed? Where should budgets be invested? Once you understand what’s going on, make use of the latest technology to make improvements – like IoT, AI, machine learning and analytics.
Get to grips with the trade-offs of greener water
The water-carbon nexus becomes even more intricate and urgent when you factor in ambitious global net zero targets. Once you know where you are, there might be some challenging decisions to make. Changing how and where you access water can lead to unintended consequences for your carbon and vice versa. For example, desalination is one way to access water, but the energy needed is massive.
As fossils fuels are phased out, green energy sources like hydrogen will significantly increase water use. The push for hydrogen could create a 20% increase in demand for water by 2050. If you look at water and decarbonisation together, you’re less likely to run into these tricky problems.
Upskill your workforce, and educate your consumers
As a business, collectively, you have the opportunity to have a much bigger impact than any one individual. Training your workforce to be more aware of water efficiencies will help. In turn, they can pass this on to the end consumer If everyone in an organisation is upskilled, this will filter down to processes, products, services and communication with consumers.
One challenge is that most people think of water as being cheap or free – businesses can help by showing the real cost of water, and just how much gets used. For example, it takes on average 14 litres of water to make just one cup of coffee. There are campaigns focusing on this, companies like P&G are working with others in their industry on the 50-litre home initiative, and there are clever consumer start-ups like Wizzo helping to reduce water usage in homes.
Whatever your carbon/water strategy, make education part of it to make greater inroads. And be aware that consumers are likely to be educating themselves. People are starting to ask the difficult questions about how you’re really doing, and purpose-driven companies are finding it easier to recruit. It pays off to be transparent about your efforts.
Water has a role to play in many parts of your sustainability strategy – from biodiversity to infrastructure planning. And most businesses haven’t fully grasped the opportunities of the carbon/water nexus. But it’s one place where you can make real gains on your net zero ambitions. Careful monitoring and forward-thinking investment are key. It’s time to get started.