In November 2020, the water sector laid out its Net Zero Routemap – a ground-breaking plan to deliver a net zero water supply for UK customers by 2030. You can read more about it in our blog Supporting Water UK’s Net Zero Routemap. We recently spoke to Nathan Richardson, Head of Policy at Waterwise, an independent, not-for-profit UK NGO, focused on reducing water consumption in the UK, to discuss the Routemap and the importance of reducing household water consumption as part of their net-zero carbon journey. You can read our interview below, or listen to the podcast below!
What impact is the UK’s water industry currently having on the government’s commitment to net-zero carbon?
The water industry is the fourth most emissions intensive industry in the UK. 1% of UK emissions comes direct from the operations of water companies – abstracting, treating and pumping water to us, and then removing it, treating it and putting it back into the environment. On top of the 1%, an additional 4-5% of UK emissions arise from how water is used in our homes and businesses. That equates to around 2.6kg of CO2e per house, per day.
How does household water consumption currently create/affect carbon emissions?
In terms of the water we consume, the biggest cause of emissions in the home is from heating the water that we then use in taps, showers and baths. This makes up around 3% of UK emissions. Emissions from washing machines and dishwashers make up the other 1%. It follows that if we can use less water, especially hot water, then we will reduce emissions helping us both mitigate climate change and adapt to it as well.
Even modest reductions in household water use of only 5-6% can deliver annual emissions savings of around 1.3 MtCO2e. That’s a bigger saving that was actually achieved in the whole UK housing sector in 2017-18, 2018-19 or 2019-20!
The Net Zero Routemap sets out the industry’s vision for how water companies will play their part in tackling climate change. In your opinion does the Routemap address all the challenges needed to be overcome if we are to achieve a decarbonated water industry?
I am a big fan of the Routemap. It is ambitious and inspiring, and the water sector is leading the way in committing to get to net zero by 2030. But it only currently covers their own operational emissions. The emissions from how the product the sector sells are 10-20 times greater. So I believe there’s a great opportunity for the sector to play a pivotal role in helping wider society reduce the carbon emissions that arise from the product it sells….through promoting more efficient water use.
Does the Routemap include any measures for reducing household consumption and related emissions?
It includes a demand pathway that does recognise that by reducing water demand it reduces the amount of water the companies have to treat and pump, which will help them on their road to net zero. However it does not look at what the sector can do to reduce the far more significant levels of emissions that arise from how their customers use water.
Do you think the Routemap goes far enough?
I would like to see the Routemap looking beyond 2030 and including far more explicitly how the sector can help wider society reduce the emissions that arise from how we use water.
Most companies on the net zero journey look at their own emissions first (what are called scope 1 and 2) and then they look at scope 3 emissions from their supply chain and from how the products that they sell are used. The water industry needs to do this as well. Interestingly OFWAT are consulting on what they expect from companies by way of reporting of emissions and are already signaling that they want companies to look beyond their own operational emissions.
UK water companies have started to respond to the Routemap with their own plans to reach net-zero by 2030. How will Waterwise support them in their goals?
We can help them with the demand pathway element. Our vision is for water to be used wisely everywhere, every day. We have set up a new water industry group which is specifically looking at the links between water use, energy and emissions and how water efficiency can play a bigger role in society’s net zero journey.
We know that residential water consumption plays a significant part in the net-zero effort – do you believe that a greater focus on customer engagement and education is important?
Yes it is. First off, many customers have no idea how much water they use or how they compare with other similar households. A recent survey Waterwise conducted found that nearly half of people thought they were using around 20 litres a day, rather than a typical 150 litres. If people don’t know how much they are actually using it is hard to motivate them to make savings.
We need to help customers make the link between water use and energy use – that saving water helps reduce energy and emissions. For customers who don’t have a water meter they may not see any financial savings from reducing their water consumption, but they will see savings in their energy bill.
How can water utilities improve in this area?
We need faster roll out of smart meters, so that all water customers in England are smart metered by 2035. Smart meters provide high resolution data to the customer and the water company which allows a far richer conversation between the water company and customer around water saving. They also help spot leaks in customer premises, which means they get fixed more quickly. Water savings as high as 17% have been found when people get metered, and that could reduce total UK emissions by around 1%. Secondly, water companies undertake thousands of home visits to customers each year to help them save water. Energy companies do similar. We need to make sure that these programmes are more joined up and include advice on reducing both water and energy consumption.
Do you think companies like Advizzo, that deliver customer engagement solutions, play an important role in supporting water utilities’ net-zero journey?
Absolutely! In a digital age consumers expect a far higher level of service and access to information to help them make day to day decisions quickly. The days of a water bill once every six months that doesn’t even tell you in understandable language, how much water you have used are hopefully disappearing.
Having water and energy-use data at your fingertips alongside targeted and useful nudges to help you save water is the way forward. Information on water use can sit alongside information on how your water saving is saving energy and money, and reducing emissions or protecting the environment, and it can also be linked to incentive schemes to promote good behaviours.
What other policies/actions relating to household consumption can be put in place to help reach net-zero targets?
Firstly, we want to see the government bring in a mandatory water efficiency label on water- using products, like taps and showers. This would give customers information to allow them to choose more water efficient, as well as energy efficient products. Such a label would reduce emissions by the same amount as taking 1 million cars off the road!
Secondly, we want any future home retrofit programmes or grants to take a whole house approach looking at energy, water and waste. It is so frustrating when we see siloed schemes, when many of the solutions can help us not only hit net zero but also help us adapt to the climate emergency.
Do you think the targets are achievable?
I think net zero by 2050 is achievable. The biggest challenge will be reducing emissions from our homes. There is no quick fix and retrofitting 28 million homes with low carbon energy is a huge and complex undertaking. Progress so far has been too slow. However, saving water is something we can all do, and do now. It offers a great way to make significant, quick reductions in emissions over the next decade or two, while our home energy is decarbonised. Not only does water efficiency help mitigate climate change, it helps us adapt to future water scarcity, and it saves money and helps leave more water in our rivers and streams. What’s not to like!