Environment Analysis

Water industry could improve to meet net zero targets

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Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek should consider ways to improve the carbon footprint of our water industry (Image by Dan Jensen)

At this point in the national conversation over energy policy, it’s time for our water industry to rise to the challenge, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

AUSTRALIA’S WATER UTILITIES recently announced national standards as to what could/should not be, flushed down the loo. In the “yes” category were the two Ps (no prizes for guessing those two) and a third P (toilet paper). Although you’d wonder about the perseverance with this 19th-century tech given a miserable, lowly fate for trees, especially if you’ve been to Japan and got flushed and dried by their all-in-one high-tech facilities.

In any event, there was quite a flurry of publicity from the industry about reaching a historic flushable products standard in collaboration with manufacturers, peak bodies and consumer groups in order to avoid blocked sewer lines and having to periodically degum sewerage treatment plants.

Missing in action

The new standard which covers items like plastics and “diameter” overlooks things like pharmaceuticals  (or illicit drugs for that matter) despite the existence of long-standing best practice protocols such as no drugs down the drain.

Preventing these chemicals from getting into the sewer in the first place is imperative given the difficulties sewerage plants already have with emerging contaminants — cocktails of complex, intricately engineered compounds that can have a lethal impact on human and wildlife endocrine systems, even if available at trace quantities. Utilities plainly have a duty of care to nature given they discharge to its “receiving waters” (and more recently land) as well as meeting human health stringencies.

It is to be hoped that the expertise recently acquired in sensing COVID-19 in sewers can be consolidated into microbiology units that will relish tackling issues centred around emerging contaminants (PFAS, too), as well as being pivotal to safe water recycling. Something for fresh minds under the industry’s young utility leaders program.

Complex calculus

In reality, treatment processes are designed more for removing pathogens than for breaking down molecules, although chlorination and what’s known in the trade as “ozonation” have some ability to change the chemistry of, for example, drug molecules (to exactly what is unclear). Adding further stages like nanofiltration and activated carbon to “treatment trains” will inevitably move the process further away from carbon neutrality.

Carbon accounting

A comprehensive review covering seven stages of the public water-in-use cycle has focused on carbon footprints across each of these sectors, the least being dam-sourced supplies (minimal pretreatment) and gravity draining sewerage systems (minimal pumping).

Coupled with growing public expectations about water quality, this contrasts with a long-held view that the industry’s carbon footprint is minuscule compared with buildings, industry, transportation and electricity. This belief has been upturned by findings of the United States Congressional Research Office

Climate obligations

As global heating puts yet more pressure on water infrastructure, the industry will increasingly become both a contributor to and a casualty of global heating; its core assets will be vulnerable to wildfire and/or accelerating sea-level rise and storm surge. As such, it will increasingly find itself working alongside first responders in dealing with contamination.

Meanwhile, there’s clear evidence that “underweighting” energy considerations in water infrastructure is commonplace (outside of North America) and that this is an unsustainable position for the industry as a whole to maintain. Further, as strategies to reduce CO2e emissions from buildings, the primary energy sector and transportation begin to bite, growing and unabated levels from the water industry could leave it as a non-conforming emitter.

A substantial change in mindset and a subsequent shift in behaviour is underway but needs impetus. Certainly pursuance of energy neutrality provides unparalleled opportunities to make changes to the design and operation of new facilities.

A path to net-zero

In this way, the industry can become an influential – as opposed to a passive player – in decarbonising the cities of this planet and most importantly, play a material role in reaching net zero emissions.

Further, it needs to be more on the front foot, joining the climate emergency call and taking ownership of its burgeoning energy needs, starting with lobbying for a water category in national emissions per Australia. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to improve its carbon performance from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment.

A symbolic beginning would be to real-time accredit its “product” with a carbon rating given that measurement and disclosure are on the horizon,  

These sentiments square with a take-away from McKinsey’s COP26 sustainability report:

‘Achieving net zero will require overcoming traditional orthodoxies and ways of working and constructive actions taken during the pandemic have demonstrated the world’s ability to innovate and intervene at scale to support both lives and livelihoods.’

Dr Peter Fisher is an Honorary & Vice-Chancellor Fellows Group member, University of Melbourne.

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