‘We have to show people that using less water is part of saving the planet’

As part of our Countdown to COP campaign, Water UK chief executive Christine McGourty talks to Utility Week about cross-sector collaboration, delivering the water industry’s commitment to reach net zero by 2030 and tackling consumption.

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

This year’s COP is a hugely exciting opportunity for utilities to highlight some of the critical challenges and decisions that will have to be made as we work to slow down, and adapt to, the impacts of climate change. The water industry is acutely aware of our responsibility as a provider of a vital public service and as a custodian of the natural environment so we’re looking forward to some important discussions about how to deliver on both the net zero challenge and nature’s recovery.

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?

If the 2020s is the decade to deliver on climate change, then 2021 is the year to make some of the key decisions to enable that to happen. We have laid out the world’s first detailed routemap to achieve net zero emissions on a sector-wide basis by 2030 and are proud to be the first industry trade body to join the Race to Zero as an official partner – we don’t have all the answers, but we’re keen to share our learnings with other water companies globally, and with other sectors too.

Where do you see further opportunities for pan-utilities co-operation on the path to decarbonisation?

Cross-sector working is just so important, both amongst utilities and beyond. Many of our members are already playing their part in energy by turning sewage waste into grid-ready gas but, with the right government support, there’s a real opportunity to take that further and help other sectors by upgrading our facilities to provide them with an alternative fuel source that would otherwise go to waste.

We’re also really excited about the opportunity to work more with environmental NGOs on the shared benefits of a move away from carbon-intensive concrete and steel infrastructure investments to more nature-based solutions.

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

Collaboration. The utilities industry is in a unique position in that we touch every part of the economy so it’s critical that we work together across sectors and government departments on the development of policy and regulatory changes that will deliver the best value for money for the consumer, maximise opportunities and minimise trade-offs. The supply chain also has a critical role to play.

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

There’s been great progress in engaging the consumer on energy saving that now needs to be matched on water. Our research has shown that the majority of people are willing to do their bit for the environment by reducing the amount of water they use so we’re going to be building on our Water’s Worth Saving campaign this year. We’re also leading the drive to introduce mandatory water labelling so that customers are able to make a more informed decision before buying a new appliance. We’ve got to show people that saving water isn’t just about saving money. They’re saving the planet too.