De-carbonising the water industry

Posted: Friday 5th February 2010

A groundbreaking Environment Agency report into greenhouse gas emissions generated from the water industry has identified ways to both reduce emissions and continue to improve water quality. Opportunities include controlling pollution at source, renewable energy generation, redeveloping existing treatment processes and greater operational efficiencies.

The water industry currently accounts for about five million tonnes of carbon dioxideemissions per year (almost one per cent of UK greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions). If the UK target of reducing greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050 is to be met, the water sector has an important part to play in reducing emissions.

There is a challenge in reducing emissions because meeting current environmental quality standards and the higher water quality standards required by the Water Framework Directive (WFD) could involve energy intensive processes, resulting in GHG production.

The report, researched with water industry participation, outlines strategies that could be adopted by the water industry, the Environment Agency and others to reduce the carbon impact of the WFD and deliver overall emission reductions, and the barriers that need to be addressed to achieve these reductions. Strategies include:

Source control and sustainable drainage systems: In some situations, the greatest carbon savings may be achieved through the control, at source, of the substance of concern, reducing or avoiding the need for treatment. A reduction in surface water runoff into the sewerage system and therefore a reduction in the need for pumping - could see an additional reduction of 110,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Regulators and government are key to facilitating this.

Renewable energy generation: The generation of energy within the water industry from renewable sources such as hydropower and sewage sludge digestion. Widespread use of anaerobic digestion to provide combined heat and power could result in savings of over 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Redeveloping existing treatment processes: This focuses on switching conventional processes to lower energy alternatives. While some treatment of wastewater will always be necessary at sewage works,with associated energy use and emissions, redeveloping treatment processes has the potential, with regulatory support, to both reduce the effluent concentration of pollutants to meet WFD objectives, and reduce carbon. Anglian Water, for example, has developed an alternative low carbon approach to wastewater treatment making use of wind energy to aerate the water and using a technique that produces no sewage sludge for disposal.

Greater operational efficiencies: This strategy reduces demand for power through optimising the treatment of sewage and any combined wastewater systems.

Over the past two decades the Environment Agency has supported the industry in the delivery of 20 billion of investment in improving water quality. Ofwats recent water price review decision has guaranteed a further 4 billion is to be invested by the water industry in England and Wales to fund environmental improvements over the next five years. This latest report demonstrates that, with the right policy and regulatory framework, water quality improvements can be achieved in the long term without increasing harmful GHG emissions.

Ian Barker, Head of Water at the Environment Agency, said:

We have assessed the impact of the Water Framework Directive on greenhouse gas emissions and identified opportunities to reduce this. Its possible for the industry to reduce CO2 emissions at the same time as meeting higher environmental standards. We will continue to work with water companies, governments and other regulators to ensure this happens.

Bruce Horton, Head of Climate Change at Water UK said:

The industry is working hard to deliver higher environmental and water quality standards as required by the WFD, without adding to global climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. This report shows that this is not inevitable, but there are barriers that need to be removed to simultaneously achieve high water quality and a low emissions water industry. We will continue to work with the Environment Agency and other partners to achieve this through the strategies outlined in the report.

The report can be obtained from

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