Jonquil Hackenberg, Global head of sustainability and climate response at PA Consulting, discusses how businesses can sustainably access that most precious commodity – water.
For businesses, water demand is only going to increase, and in the very near future it will be vital to access water in new ways. This is a challenge for many organisations. But get it right, and it doesn’t just help with water supplies, it has a real impact on bringing down carbon use. That’s because water production, conveyancing and purification takes up an inordinate amount of energy. So, reducing and reusing water has even more impact than you might immediately realise.
In fact, our recent research suggests that organisations have the potential to save 86 billion cubic metres of water between now and 2030. That’s equivalent to the yearly water consumption of Japan, and a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 12 million tonnes. Or to put it another way, it is equivalent to delivering up to a quarter of the cuts required to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. In the future, resource scarcity will be the key driver behind competition, not just the end consumer. It seems like a no-brainer for businesses to get on top of this.
What gets in the way? The perception for many people that water is ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ doesn’t help. In the Western world, few organisations are really putting a value on water. With climate change and more risks to supply that is changing – but slowly. Many businesses are leaning heavily on public water supplies, with a large proportion of those we spoke to (46%) using this as their primary source.
Data can be another blocker. Finding greener ways to access water depends on understanding your existing usage. Around a third (35%) of leaders we spoke to highlighted the low uptake of technology as a barrier to monitoring water usage and its link to carbon emissions. The inability to share data, disincentives for data sharing, poor quality data and the incompatibility of data all play a part.
So what can you do to access water in greener ways?
Think beyond fresh
Fresh water doesn’t have to be the default. Water innovators are working hard to create more usable water, whether that’s converting wastewater into reusable water or providing new water sources at the point of need by making greywater potable. With so much of the world’s water found in oceans, desalination is an obvious route to more usable water. But it’s a trade-off: the energy used to produce it is currently up to 23 times that used for conventional water, which increases costs and carbon.
What’s more, the chemicals used to clean water have a significant impact on biodiversity, with chemical pollutants being released through reverse osmosis. However, the technology is always improving. For example, Desolenator recently developed a system that uses solar power to desalinate seawater. As these kind of green desalination techniques come online, leaders should be looking out for what’s possible: working to technology roadmaps that keep a close eye on the value potential of emerging and scaled technologies.
Look at the life cycle of the water you use – and think circular
Reusing water is an obvious win for most businesses. It starts a shift in thinking. Water and carbon should be considered as part of the circular economy – an opportunity to recover the embedded value from everything once it’s used. Whether it’s connecting green desalination to more efficient irrigation, or more efficient storage linking up with green wastewater treatment and re-use solutions, there are an abundance of possibilities to ensure water is used in an efficient, circular way.
To do this well, you’ll need to consider the whole lifecycle of water across your activities. We mapped out water usage across a typical value chain across a selection of industries. When we spoke to organisations about this, they told us that some of the biggest gains can be made in the ‘make’ part of the process – regardless of industries surveyed.
Collaborate, don’t compete
The traditional approach of different organisations competing for the same water, or only thinking of their own water needs, must end. Instead, imagine if major water users in geographical areas worked together in a systems-based approach, collectively striving for the lowest energy demand and environmental impact. On the East Coast of India, for example, are several large-scale representatives from each of our surveyed sectors. These organisations will have their own targets and technologies. By connecting and scaling both digital and physical innovation and approaches across the region, organisations in water scarce areas could drive greater change. This is good for the planet, and good business sense too.
Accessing water in greener ways isn’t just a tick box exercise. It means looking at water in every part of your operations and beyond to see where the opportunities are. The benefit goes beyond being able to keep business afloat – offering opportunities to collaborate for a greater good and lower carbon emissions at the same time.