A study from construction firm AECOM and Cambridge Econometrics on behalf of WWF has examined the potential impact of environmental damage on the UK economy in a business-as-usual scenario. It claims that 354,000 jobs may be lost without action to protect UK water supplies, while increased extreme weather events such as floods, heatwaves and wildfires could result in a 0.9% fall in GDP.  

Far too little is being done by the public and private sector to prepare for these risks, campaigners warn.

“We have some major environmental challenges coming our way, and our economy needs to be future-proofed,” said WWF chief advisor on economics and development Karen Ellis. “From increased risks of flooding to soil erosion, drought and air pollution, our environment is changing quicker than people think.

“This is bad for business, bad for our national economy, and bad for jobs. But businesses and governments across the UK are giving it too little consideration when making decisions.”

Stress tests

The report claims that the environmental and economic disturbance caused by floods in recent winters would be much worse in 2050.

A repeat of the 2012/13 winter floods would reportedly affect more than twice the amount of homes and 45% more non-residential properties, mostly businesses. This could lead to a 70% increase in damages to £2.2bn – up from an estimated £1.3bn cost of the 2012/13 flood.

WWF stresses that the Government would benefit from a stress testing approach and long-term plan for managing natural capital.

“Environmental damage is already imposing significant costs on the UK economy and businesses,” Ellis said. “The UK Government must start addressing these issues properly or it is going to cost us all money and some of us might even lose our jobs.”

High tides

Businesses have already been warned about the risks associated with neglecting water stewardship. A report from CDP in 2016 found that companies are not adequately preparing for a water-scarce world, noting that more than 2,200 water risks could materialise in the next six years.

The warning was accompanied by financial figures from CDP, which found that water risks fuelled by climate change cost the private sector £11.3bn in a year.

Some major firms are factoring environmental considerations into their business thinking. US brewer MillerCoors, for instance, recently announced that it used 15 billion fewer gallons of water across its value chain in 2016, as new farming and irrigation systems and wet weather reduced the firm’s water consumption by almost 17%.

Just six of the world’s largest food companies have set sustainable water-sourcing targets for the majority of their agricultural inputs. One of these firms, Coca-Cola, has set a long-term global commitment to protecting and replenishing the water resources it relies on.

The company’s European arm earlier this summer announced that a 10.3% reduction in water usage had been achieved since 2010, using an average of 1.61 litres of water to make one litre of product. In addition, 100% of the company’s wastewater is “safely returned to nature”, while partnerships with NGOs have been formed to replenish 100% of the water used in water-stressed areas.

Commenting on the WWF report findings, Coca-Cola Great Britain sustainability manager Liz Lowe said: “Water is the main ingredient in all of our drinks, and it’s also an important part of our production process. That’s why we want to make sure we use it responsibly and sustainably with a commitment to replenish an equivalent amount of the water we use back to nature and communities.”

George Ogleby

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