Practical ways the water sector can improve resilience while cutting carbon

The water sector faces a paradox: cutting capital and operational carbon while at the same time maintaining performance standards in the face of a changing climate. In this second in this series of articles, sustainability experts Alex McMahon and Ben Murray examine practical ways that the water sector can address the challenge.

In the first article in this series, we examined an emerging challenge facing the water sector: balancing the need to minimise carbon emissions while maintaining performance standards in the face of a changing climate.

As the current regulatory environment can potentially (and inadvertently) prioritise cost and water quality[1] over carbon, water utility service providers and regulators will need to take a proactive and balanced approach, which we examine in greater depth here.


Reducing carbon while improving resilience

To reduce capital and operational carbon effectively, it is important to assess the real need for infrastructure in the first place by considering the following questions as early as possible in the planning process:

  • What is the scale of the potential carbon impact?
  • Is the infrastructure essential, or could the scope be reduced?
  • Is there any existing infrastructure that could be refurbished to suit the project requirements?
  • Are there any innovative or lower-carbon alternatives?

By answering these key questions, utilities providers can balance project need against carbon impact to prioritise essential infrastructure. For example, the delivery of some projects, such as Thames Tideway, is so vital they must be built (but in the lowest carbon way possible). By the same token, these key questions will also identify those projects where alternative delivery methods could be considered.

Reliable data is an important tool in this process. For example, we co-developed an industry-leading approach to whole-life cost and carbon estimating with the Environment Agency and software developer Ares. Considering whole-life assessments for both cost and carbon enables the identification of optimum sustainable solutions early in a project’s lifecycle, improving investment decision-making. Integrating cost and carbon estimates within a single platform provides consistency and a more accurate measurement and reporting mechanism which will help the Environment Agency achieve its strategic target of net zero by 2030.


Alternative approaches

There is a range of alternatives to traditional, hard-engineering solutions that could help develop resilience in a low-carbon way.


Nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions can increase resilience to climate change while also enhancing water availability and improving water quality – for example through floodplain restoration, green roofs, natural and constructed wetlands, riparian buffer strips, groundwater recharge, and soil water retention measures. Nature-based solutions can also bring further environmental benefits such as biodiversity net gain, landscape improvements, improved air quality as well as carbon sequestration.


Recent and ongoing advancements in technology can help to reduce carbon while building resilience. For example, smart metering and telemetry can help improve understanding of usage patterns and water demands, while leak detection and repair can be improved through remote inspection using drones. Self-repairing pipe technology can also be used to automatically repair leaks, reducing future maintenance requirements.

Design for local flood resilience

In some cases, it may be more carbon- and cost-effective to build in flood resilience to specific assets during design such as adding flood doors and self-sealing toilets to buildings, waterproofing electrics and raising vulnerable assets above floodwater levels.

Adaptive planning

Traditionally, infrastructure is built based on uncertain assumptions about future conditions. Adaptive planning – the consideration of a broad range of different future scenarios – can help designers to steer away from large infrastructure solutions in favour of more sustainable alternatives.

Adaptive planning should be applied when developing delivery strategies to build flexibility into long-term planning so the sector can cope with changes in circumstances over time. This process can help build resilience against high-impact climate scenarios, while reducing the risk of stranded assets in the event of lower-impact scenarios.


The need for carbon in the regulatory space

However, as we discussed in the first article, carbon needs to be considered in the regulatory space, alongside cost and water quality to best enable effective decision-making around the alternative methods mentioned above.

For this to happen, we need collaboration between the different regulators across the sector, and considerable engagement with key stakeholders to determine how to manage and balance impacts and improvements across the different elements of the environment such as carbon (and climate change) versus improved water quality, and at what economic cost.


Click here to read the first in this series of articles, which examines regulatory and practical challenges the water sector is facing as it strives to maintain performance standards in the face of a changing climate.

[1] Water quality includes both drinking water quality and environmental performance in terms of discharges to water courses.