Water SIG’s Climate Crisis Position

Water SIG’s Climate Crisis Position

1st June 2020


A significant reduction in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases is required to keep planetary heating within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. We are currently on track to go well beyond the 2°C limit that signatory countries to the Paris Agreement committed to stay “well below” when they agreed to pursue the science-based 1.5°C limit.

Companies, countries, industries and individuals are pledging climate action and developing action plans to end contributions to global warming via net zero carbon emissions by 2030 (UK Water Industry Public Interest Commitment), 2045 (Scotland Legislation) and 2050 (EU Parliament declaration and UK Legislation). We encourage actively lobbying for these dates to be brought closer, informed through development of a 1.5°C action plan.

We have written this IChemE Water Special Interest Group (SIG) Climate Crisis Position Paper, in recognition of the climate crisis and the obligations that the Water SIG considers our Members have in knowledge sharing, education and promoting public access to factual, scientific information. We also recognised that the world has the solutions to address the climate crisis and that chemical engineers have a substantial role to play in many of these. This document sets out our collective thoughts on key roles, responsibilities and the wonderful opportunities for Chemical Engineers in Water.

Climate crisis and water

We consider that the effects of the climate crisis will disproportionately affect people living in developing nations. The World Health Organisation has identified water related illnesses as a significant cause of death in the 250,000 additional deaths predicted to occur each year between 2030 and 2050 due to the climate crisis[1]. Water related impacts of climate change with potential to cause loss of life include:

  • Drought – resulting in permanent loss of fertile farmland, loss of livelihood, displacement, mass migration and loss of life through dehydration and water-borne disease;
  • Flooding and increased adverse weather events – resulting in drowning, loss of habitat, and water-borne disease such as cholera; and
  • Conflict – both in terms of water wars fought between regions sharing rivers and aquifers, and as a result of overwhelming migration stemming from the above.

Water Industries have the opportunity to contribute significant carbon benefits when considering the energy recovery and circular economy potential within the sector.

Actions we can take

We will publicise the climate crisis and what we are already doing about it

Within the water industry, our members are actively quantifying and mitigating carbon emissions, developing lower carbon treatment processes, implementing circular economy, taking action to reduce water and energy usage and promoting water re-use.

We will publicise this work through public access webinars, open access articles on our web pages, submissions to other publications, via social media and through IChemE’s media centre.

1.5°C action plan

As IChemE's Water SIG we would like to play an active role in developing an industry-relevant 1.5°C action plan and encourage our members to do the same. Our willing input should include consideration of:

Actions for a sustainable water industry:

  • Engaging with all stakeholders in our professional capacity for an inclusive water industry and systems decarbonisation.
  • Developing a road map to water industry transition from net carbon emitters to net carbon reducers. For example, through energy and resource recovery from biosolids and production of circular economy products from water and wastewater (phosphate fertilisers, bioplastics, metals etc.).
  • Addressing the issues of sustainable desalination. Desalination is the most energy-intensive form of water production, yet likely to become an increasingly necessary mitigation of the effects of climate change.
  • Addressing the issues of sustainable wastewater reuse. Wastewater reuse is generally a more sustainable means of sourcing water than desalination. However, it poses significant chemical engineering challenges and even greater public perception and acceptability challenges.
  • Minimising energy consumption in water and wastewater treatment, including taking a holistic view when revising effluent discharge consents.
  • Protecting and valuing existing natural capital and creating nature-based solutions (e.g. constructed wetlands) where appropriate, as well as protecting natural carbon sinks (e.g. oceanic plankton).
  • Implementing low emissions technologies in water and wastewater treatment such as those which utilise methane and do not generate nitrous oxide.
  • Developing and promoting decentralised water and wastewater treatment technologies that reduce the need to pump water and wastewater significant distances. Examples of this would be rainwater treatment, local groundwater treatment and aquifer-recharge, composting toilets, greywater reuse.

Action on water efficiency:

  • Developing water foot-printing tools, including evaluation of the ‘cost’ of water for new projects to enable comparison between options at feasibility stage.
  • Promoting water efficiency in networks and homes, including digitisation, reducing non-revenue water and leakage.
  • Exploring options around circular water, including decentralisation, greywater and industrial reuse.

Action on decarbonising energy:

  • Collaborating on sustainable energy sources including hydro-electric and solar power options.
  • Enhancing effectiveness of biogas generation from wastewater sludges.
  • Developing hydrogen generation from water sources, utilisation of photo-voltaic cells in and electrolysis of water.
  • Accelerating innovation and commercial deployment of energy storage technology, to enable use of renewable energy sources.

Action on decarbonising heating:

  • Assisting with water-heating options.

Action for sustainable food:

  • Determining sustainable means of reducing and meeting irrigation demands.
  • Reducing the use of carbon intensive fertilisers and consequently the impact of these on global water resources, for example by utilisation of biosolids and nutrients from wastewater.

Decarbonising construction:

  • Recognising that, particularly in developing countries, there is a need for construction of new water industry assets (including treatment and distribution).
  • Supporting development of low carbon emission construction methods for new assets.
  • Promoting the adoption of more sustainable methods to produce concrete, steel and other construction materials.

Carbon draw down:

  • Supporting negative carbon emissions technologies and research initiatives.
  • Developing sustainable carbon sequestering technologies and processes.

Helping the chemical engineering profession adopt science-based targets

We can contribute to informing science-based targets by:

  • Determining the total carbon footprint per cubic metre of water used, based on the water supply mix of each country/region.
  • Supporting members and their organisations in their journey towards science-based targets and accreditations, providing advice on water and wastewater reuse, demand reduction and waste to energy options.
  • Actively promoting our strategies to address the water climate crisis in our outreach programmes to raise awareness of what net zero and science-based targets mean from a water industry perspective and why these are imperative.
  • Developing methods for measuring sea temperature and pH as indicators for monitoring COincreases.

Providing reskilling and retraining opportunities

The water sector is in need of process engineering resources, and this need will only increase as the effects of climate change intensify. There are many chemical engineering core competencies (e.g. HAZOP) that the water industry is currently lacking and would benefit from engineers in other industries bringing those transferrable skills with them.

We will do everything we can to welcome in process engineers from other sectors. We would like to produce a conversion course for experienced process engineers who would like to rapidly upskill to join and assist the water industry.

Our role in recommendations to policy and decision makers

To avoid irreparable social, economic and environmental damage and unprecedented levels of global migration, civil unrest, conflict and loss of life, it is essential that we accelerate our efforts to decarbonise and remove greenhouse gases from the earth’s atmosphere. As IChemE's Water SIG, we will speak this truth to power offering well-considered advice to all policy and decision-makers who request it through IChemE. We will publish appropriate articles and recommendations for policy- and decision-makers based on sound scientific principles and engineering judgement.

We see exciting opportunities to support and promote research, both academic and industrial, specific to the climate crisis. This includes supporting research into water and wastewater treatment in lower income and industrialised countries for a carbon neutral future, sustainable desalination and circular economy in water industry value chains with holistic catchment approach.

What next?

We believe there is no greater, nor more exciting, opportunity for chemical engineers than to play a role in creating a better future for all:

  • which sits firmly within the planetary limits of earth;
  • which achieves the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; and
  • that leaves no-one behind.

We recognise the professional obligation we have to humanity today and tomorrow, to be successful in doing so. We also recognise that we must act now for a future we choose.

[1] WHO note studies to date are limited and this work does not include effects of major heatwaves, river flooding and water scarcity.

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