The climate fight will be won in the water

By John Russell, Senior Director Strategy, Finance and Infrastructure at Ofwat   

There was a time when climate-conscious consumers keen to do their bit for the planet focused mainly on lifestyle changes that relate to our impact on the land. 

From reducing car journeys to cutting back on meat and dairy products and doing more recycling, saving the planet seemed to come down to saving the land we inhabit – but the same level of thought wasn’t necessarily given to the water that covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface.

Growing concerns over single-use plastics changed all that, while the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy took the debate to another level by highlighting the impact of the fishing industry. 

There is a growing sense that, as well as on land, it’s in our seas, oceans and waterways that the battle to preserve our planet will be won and lost.

Indeed, a new report by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Rewilding Britain states that rewilding our oceans will be as important as reforestation in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

It points out that Britain’s coastal waters cover 500,000 km2 and store an estimated 205 million tonnes of carbon – that’s 50 million tonnes more than the carbon stored within all the UK’s forests.

Restoring seagrass to Britain’s coastal waters is one of several rewilding measures advocated by the report.

Seagrass locks carbon into the seabed at a rapid rate, improves water quality and creates habitats for hundreds of thousands of small animals – but recent estimates suggest that up to 92% of the UK’s seagrass may have already been lost.

Happily, the fightback has begun.

A project to plant and restore seagrass meadows on the Essex and Suffolk coastlines, where thousands of hectares of seagrass have been lost, harnesses new techniques to enhance the future resilience of seagrass meadows.

It will not only create opportunities for improving water quality, but also create a more amiable environment for local communities, increase biodiversity and absorb carbon and nitrogen emissions – whilst providing a model for rolling it out to other areas. 

The scheme, which paves the way for similar projects, was recently named as one of 11 winning entries in the first of a series of challenges we’ll be running with support from Nesta Challenges, Arup and Isle Utilities up to 2025 through the Ofwat Innovation Fund.

The other winners include a scheme that turns ammonia in wastewater into green hydrogen fuel – a first for the water industry.

The purpose of these competitions is to unearth new ideas and projects that enable the UK water sector to respond and adapt to the big challenges it faces. This includes the pressing issue of climate change, as well as restoring and improving our water environments – protecting people from the impact of extreme weather and pollution in years to come.

Of course, it isn’t just our seas and oceans that require protection and preservation, but also our rivers, lakes, streams and other waterways.

In the UK, our waterways face a range of challenges, whether it’s pollution from leaky sewage pipes or the destruction of natural habitats.

It’s vital that the sector responds to these challenges and we’re glad to see that water companies in the UK have already committed to delivering a net zero water supply for customers by 2030, one of the first sector wide commitments of its kind.

And we’re pushing them to do everything possible to be ready for the challenges the future will bring – from escalating climate shocks like floods to meeting demand for water during heatwaves. We’re also supporting £2.8 billion of investment in environmental projects to help the country build back greener from the Covid pandemic.

New projects being supported will see companies collaborating with local partners to reduce the risk of flooding, protect habitats, and cut pollution by investing in catchment management and nature-based solutions.

Planned investment that has been brought forward to help accelerate the green recovery includes projects to improve river quality and protect endangered species.

It is initiatives and collaboration like this that we hope to see even more of in the next rounds of our innovation competitions – taking ideas from other sectors and finding applications for the water sector.

These schemes almost certainly won’t feature on a Netflix documentary, but they demonstrate the positive impact that the water sector can have in the battle to respond to climate change.

Saving our planet is a battle that will be fought in the water, as well as on land.  

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