‘Beware of unintended consequences on net-zero journey’

It is crucial that the water sector is not excluded from decarbonisation incentives so it can play a full role in the path to 2050, says Dr Keith Colquhoun, Climate Change & ESG Manager at Thames Water. As part of our Countdown to COP coverage, he also discusses the water sector’s ambitious target to reduce operational emissions to net zero by 2030.

What opportunities does COP26 represent for the utilities sector, and how can we capitalise on them?

While COP26 is an important milestone, it’s not the end of the challenge facing the utilities sector, the economy and the government, so it’s important we all continue thinking about how to tackle climate change beyond November. All the UK water companies, including Thames Water, have committed to reducing operational emissions to net zero by 2030 and, while we fully understand the magnitude of this challenge, we don’t yet have all the answers on how we will achieve this. The crucial thing now is that we’ve started moving towards this ambitious target.

COP26 can become an important vehicle through which the government can galvanise action from all sectors, and on a global level, to step up action on carbon reduction. However, it’s just as important that we send a clear signal to, and provide support for, everyone to start stepping up and delivering lower carbon solutions, goods, and services as soon as possible.

COP26 also needs to be about ensuring a “climate resilient” future where our plans take in to account the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Since 1998 we have recorded both the 10 warmest and 10 wettest years on record ever in the UK. We need to start the conversation about how the UK becomes more resilient to these and other challenges posed by climate change, either by reducing the impact on businesses and society or having plans in place to allow us to quickly recover from any impact.

What does the UK need to achieve in the next nine months to present itself as a world leader in tackling climate change? What role can utilities play in that?

The UK needs to have a clear plan of what it can commit to and a strong idea of how to achieve this. As mentioned, this needs to include how we will adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

At Thames Water, we will publish our initial plan for achieving net carbon zero by the middle of the year, outlining our goals, opportunities and challenges. This will build on our existing good work in the field, including renewable electricity, self-generation of energy on sites, the decarbonisation of our vehicles and switch to fossil-free fuels among other things.

What is your principle ask of government and/or regulators to unlock the sector’s potential to accelerate the green transition?

One crucial thing the government needs to think about is how overall policies will work across a range of sectors, in order to reduce the risk of policies in one area leading to unintended consequences in another. For example, the UK water sector has the opportunity to revisit how is uses the biogas produced during the sewage treatment process. Currently much of this gas is used to generate renewable heat and power on the sites where it is produced but there is potential to move towards exporting more of this biogas into the gas grid in place of fossil fuels or to be used as a renewable fuel to power vehicles. To support this and avoid companies being locked in to other uses of biogas it is important that the water sector is not excluded from access to government incentives.

How can utilities help to encourage all consumers to be more active participants in the net-zero journey?

While this is an area we at Thames Water are working hard in, it’s important that consumers and society also buy in to a change in behaviours around consumption. When society consumes fewer resources, this translates to a reduction in carbon emissions to the atmosphere and fewer resources are used. Where society continues to consume, we need to be thinking about how we can deliver better products, goods and services that have been designed to be low carbon, reparable, recyclable or where the carbon impact can be offset through environmental improvements including carbon sequestration (where carbon is captured and stored in plants, oceans and the ground).

One of the areas we do a lot of work in is water efficiency: helping customers use less water and do more with the water they do use. The less water customers consume the less water is required to be produced, and therefore the associated emission used in that production are lower.

Sewer blockages caused by fats and “unflushable” items like wet wipes are also labour-intensive to clear, so cutting down on these blockages will also result in a carbon reduction. Our annual “Bin it – don’t block it” campaign aims to help customers avoid blockages by disposing of these items in the bin rather than the sink or toilet.