Experts from the water sector share their thoughts on how and where innovation can boost post-COP progress and discuss whether or not the industry is already ahead of the conference’s collaborative curve.

Though just under a quarter (23%) of Brits deemed COP26 a success according to YouGov research – with the same dataset revealing that just 1% saw classed it as “very successful” – experts from across the water sector reflect on the international climate conference as a catalyst for further, and more widespread, innovation.

Susan Davy, chief executive of Pennon Group – which owns South West Water and Bournemouth Water – tells Utility Week Innovate that COP26 and its targets for the earth’s recovery necessitate widespread operational changes both within the water sector and beyond.

“This is a time to reflect on the responsibility we all have, as individuals and businesses, to play our part in making a lasting change,” she says.

“For the country to deliver on its net zero ambitions by 2050, significant changes will be required to the way we all operate, including companies and the economy as a whole; and sectors like ours will have a big role to play in this.

In reaffirming Pennon Group’s commitment to net zero targets on operational emissions by 2030 and outlining what she sees as the firm’s “pioneering” work in natural carbon sequestration, Davy adds that she considers both South West and Bournemouth Water as uniquely located in the South West to lead on carbon challenges.

Tackling ‘process emissions’

On top of this, according to Matt Pluke, sustainability leader for Anglian Water, COP26 outlined an opportunity for the water sector to help address the fact that previous COPs have not, in his opinion, given the required attention to critical areas of climate action – in particular, adaptation, nature and water.

As an example he cites the need to put the ongoing challenge presented by process emissions at the heart of industry thinking going forward.

“In November 2020, water companies unveiled a ground-breaking plan to deliver a net zero water supply for customers by 2030 in the world’s first sector-wide commitment of its kind,” he says. “This highlighted that one of the biggest challenges would be tackling the emissions associated with processing wastewater.

“At COP26, water industry trade bodies around the world joined forces in a call for investment to tackle these process emissions” he adds. “They also committed to establishing a research directory to help accelerate the sector’s global efforts to reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions and a global forum to share research conclusions and collaborate on future activity to expedite the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. I am convinced that this is the key to solving what currently seems like an intractable problem.”

Tony Harrington, director of environment at Welsh Water adds, however, that while tackling emissions from the treatment of sewage was of increased focus, a lack of investment could stifle attempts to hit industry targets.

“We are trialling as part of the Ofwat £200 million fund different anaerobic technologies to see if we can find a way to treat sewage but at the same time have zero emissions from it,” he explains.

“It is clear even if – when – this works though that we will not be able to change all waste water treatment works overnight, so we also have research in place to actively establish how we can reduce and minimise gasses which are emitted today. What we are short of is investment, without which we will not be able to meet our expressed targets.”

Decarbonising the grid, hydrogen and methane

Asked which key, water industry specific, challenges or action areas he feels were reinforced by COP26, Harrington reiterates the need to urgently decarbonise the grid.

“This is the cornerstone to our journey to zero plans as it not only helps decarbonise our electrical power use, but also much of the supply chain,” he says. “Any commitments to do or support this are most welcome.”

He points towards greater hydrogen innovation as central to achieving this. “We see biogas as a source of hydrogen with carbon capture, which is a more carbon friendly way of utilising it, and hopefully helping to establish fuel available for larger commercial vehicles in our and the fleets of others.

“We also see hydrogen as a key fuel for the manufacture of cement and steel, two carbon hungry materials we use and will continue to use into the future.”

Harrington also highlights the challenge of suitably curbing methane emissions generated from wastewater as being firmly on the post-conference agenda after a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 committed more than 100 countries to action which analysts believe could mitigate 0.2 degrees of global warming.

Combination of local and global action

The conference, Pluke adds, reinforced that the UK water sector, with its net zero route map, has a template for others to follow. “And by others, I don’t just mean other water sectors, but all other sectors around the world,” he says.

“Water actors need to be at the heart of adaptation planning because it presents both a risk and an opportunity,” he adds. “That risk being that the climate crisis is a water crisis – 90% of natural disasters are water-related. Opportunity means when done well, delivering water resilience can bring opportunity, address long-standing problem and ultimately deliver social, environmental and economic prosperity.”

Pluke also explains that COP reenforced that the UK water sector must continue to act both locally and globally.

“Firstly, the UK water sector must continue to work together to deliver net zero and make the UK more resilient to water related risks,” he says. “But secondly, and as importantly, we must recognise that the water-related impacts of climate change will be felt most keenly in other parts of the world.

“As I heard stated at one of the COP26 events, water is life – but it is also death,” Pluke continues. “This is why innovative collaborations like the Resilient Water Accelerator and the commitment to apply to join the Race to Resilience by the Future Fens : Integrated Adaptation and the Living Delta Hub initiatives is so important.”

Building momentum behind existing innovation

Graham Southall, group commercial director at Northumbrian Water, suggests that rather than highlighting new areas for innovation or collaboration within water, COP re-enforced the need redouble efforts in what he claims are already known challenge areas.

“The benefit is helping to build the momentum and get other entities, regulators and commentators on board,” he says. “The biggest impact will be on building momentum across the industry and beyond.  Moving forwards, I think that the Declaration for Fair Water Footprints will  have a great impact on creating a climate-resilient and sustainable future.

“Carbon footprint and net zero are common to all industries and are very high up on the agenda across the board.”

However, he outlines issues of long term resilience and developing and using more nature-based solutions as part of treatment processes as longer term areas for innovation stemming from COP26.

“We know that there is a strong need to do more of both collaborate and innovate,” he says. “We cannot solve the problem of climate change in isolation as a single water company, we must all work together in collaboration. Innovation is absolutely key to this, and we must continue to look for new and better solutions.”

‘Well ahead’ of COP?

Davy also stresses the importance of collaborative action and innovation to meet pressing challenges and urgent environmental demands. “We can’t do this alone, and we are determined to stand shoulder to shoulder with other organisations who share our ambitions,” she says.

“Meeting commitments is the right thing to do for our business, our customers, and the planet – protecting and enhancing our natural environment. I hope the ambitions from COP26 are translated into action as we all work together to drive positive change for this generation and those to come.”

Welsh Water’s Harrington suggests, however, that with the arrival of Spring – the new innovation body being set up by UKWIR – the water sector was “well ahead of COP” in that it already collaborates well on research with Spring poised to build on that to drive collaboration and cooperation in innovation.

“Spring is being set up of course not just to promote collaboration in the UK water sector but across water sectors internationally, so we can all benefit from the development of ideas and technology,” he tells Utility Week Innovate.

“Overall, COP26 looks like it will not solve our challenges, and if anything doubles our resolve to not only do our part, but undertake the changes we need to make at quickly as we can.

“The pace of change will be dictated by our customers and their willingness to afford the investment we need to make on their behalf.”

Yet despite the launch of the Glasgow Breakthroughs to accelerate the rollout of clean and affordable technology by investing to bring the costs of tech down, faster – with particular focus on power, road transport, steel, hydrogen, agriculture – Harrington adds that further investment in water is essential.

“We should not underestimate the importance of investment, as without it, we will simply not be able to meet our stated commitments on carbon.”

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