Tipping point

The impact of climate change is becoming more widely accepted - and even US sceptics are getting on board. Water UK's Barrie Clarke looks at the scale of change that the water industry faces in addressing and adapting to the inevitable

In the climate change community (all of us), the buzz of the moment is “tipping point”. The phrase has its origins in sociology but is used to add tension to all kinds of situations.

For environmentalists, it seems to mean when a linear movement in global temperatures is replaced by a step change. However, it includes other implications, for example when catastrophic change is probable rather than possible. Green policy people know when they are on to something, though.

Another tipping point is that yearned-for moment when environmental policy goes mainstream. That time may indeed be now, with all the parties vying to show their commitment, the climate dominant in the media and even US sceptics coming on board in numbers. With all this going on, why should we be left out? Could the water sector tipping point be when the light begins to dawn that our sustainable investment model, matured over years, might have to be turned upside down?

This may sound extreme but how would you answer the following question? What share of future investment will be directed at mitigating carbon impacts? We are already investing in adaptation to climate change – how much will be needed to maintain the level of service we enjoy now? Will future plans for investment in environmental quality be affected? How will customers and investors react to the redefinition of sustainability and redirection of policy this tipping point implies?

No one knows the answers, hence the ferment of debate. However, some pointers to the possible scale of climate change investment are looming out of the mist.

Mitigation first. Moving to lower carbon operations should partly pay for itself. Water companies are ahead of the game in their use of energy (8.5% comes from renewable sources, compared with less than 3% in other industries). But more sustainable water and wastewater treatment demands innovation. That equals research, trials and different ways of doing things. Water efficiency and recycling must go on improving.

One issue is that ever tighter standards and the widening scope of environmental regulation could easily conflict with progress in cutting emissions. When it comes to adaptation, the tipping point could be more dramatic. Not so long ago it was a form of heresy to even mention adaptation. Not any more.

In September, The British Association for the Advancement of Science made a plea for more focus on adaptation. The Association of British Insurers hosted meetings at all three major party conferences this year entitled Climate Change – Adapt and Survive. And at the Environment Agency board meeting in September, the chairman said: “Adaptation must be at the heart of the UK’s strategy for living with the unavoidable climate change we will inevitably face over the coming decades.”

Flooding is already a threat to treatment works and pumping stations in some coastal and inland areas. Reservoirs and dams could silt up if soil erosion increases. The risk of slippage to embankments from intense rainfall will increase. Pipe systems will be more prone to damage with soil movement caused by soil drying and contracting and freeze-thaw cycles. Then there is wastewater infrastructure. Where once it was the cost of the water framework directive that kept operators, investors and customer representatives awake at night (and still does), a new scarier scenario is emerging.

Research for the Environment Agency shows a big increase in combined sewer overflow spill volumes. Traditional solutions would require very high levels of investment. Meanwhile the Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence project shows the potential impacts on urban drainage and sewer flooding. Some brave cost estimates forecast the need for some £17B extra capital expenditure by 2080.

There are reassuring noises at big picture level. Green growth will allow life and business to carry on with limited interference as long as we interfere with enough determination now. The attitudes of the public and, in our case, customers and consumers will matter very much. Leadership will be crucial. Al Gore says memorably that political will is a renewable resource. Let us hope he is right.

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