Why water must be on par with energy and carbon issues

The energy intensity of water is rising, which makes understanding the synergies between the two a priority for business and governments. But is enough being done? Leigh Stringer investigates

More electricity is being used to pump water to the surface from increased use of desalination and as a result of surface transfer of water. A reform of this fragmented approach to managing water and energy is long overdue and business is beginning to wake up to the issue.

Like most environmental issues, the economic ramifications are increasing corporate awareness of water scarcity. A report by the Water Footprint Network explains that increasing demand for water may mean that parts of a supply chain could face significantly higher marginal costs to secure such supplies. In addition, small shifts in demand could create further volatility in prices.

In 2011, the Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) Water Disclosure report found that whilst water issues were impacting many businesses, it was not nearly as high on the agenda as climate change and energy consumption.

A few years and another Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report later and the economic effects of mismanaging water resources are slowly becoming apparent to the corporate community.

However, despite the number of investors requesting corporate water data through CDP in 2013 quadrupling in just three years, the number of Global 500 companies taking action and disclosing this has not matched the pace, said CDP CEO Paul Simpson.

“A shift in practice is required if companies are to realise the true benefits of water stewardship, achieve business resilience and competitive advantage. Using the insights from standardised company disclosures, investors can enhance risk management of this critical issue,” said Simpson.

Addressing this, the Water Footprint Network has called for the water footprint and carbon footprint to be assessed together, as this can help companies better understand their dependence upon water and energy resources.

“[Assessing water and carbon together] will also help companies better understand their contribution to water scarcity, water pollution, and climate change; identify strategic actions to reduce their impacts and highlight potential synergies and/or trade-offs between reducing the water footprint versus the carbon footprint,” it states.

The barriers to achieving this include the lack of a holistic framework of analysis combining these two approaches, as well as a lack of reliable data and poor understanding of the consequences of decisions or indecision and inertia, which can lead to a lack of prioritised strategic action.

Highlighting the water-energy relationship further, research from the European Wind and Energy Association (EWEA) claims that nuclear, coal and gas plants in Europe use 4.5 billion m³ of water a year – equivalent to that of 82 million EU citizens; the same as the population of Germany. Energy production represents 44% of the EU’s total water use: more than any other activity, it continues.

“Water equivalent to over three Olympic size swimming pools is consumed every minute of every day of the year to cool Europe’s nuclear, coal and gas plants”, said Ivan Pineda of EWEA.

The issue is clear and action is being called for – it’s now a matter of whether business and industry can accept that water must be on a level playing field with the likes of energy and carbon.

“Addressing such strains will require smarter thinking, technology advances and greater stakeholder engagement but, most importantly, it will require an effective holistic approach,” says the Water Footprint Network.

Leigh Stringer is the energy and sustainability editor for edie.net

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie