Carbon ambition of water utilities revealed

Aerial view of a wastewater treatment works in California, US. Image: John Cameron / Unsplash

It is a little known fact that water and wastewater infrastructure worldwide produces around 2% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Now, water and wastewater utilities and municipalities in Europe and North America are moving apace on ambitious decarbonisation goals. That is according to a survey 100 utilities by US water technology company Xylem.

Some 75% of the survey's respondents say they intend to achieve their greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals by 2040 or earlier, while 48% have set a net-zero emissions goal.

“To bridge resource gaps and serve our communities as efficiently as possible, we need to work smarter,”

Oluwole McFoy, Buffalo Sewer Authority

“The water sector has an important role in the global effort to reduce GHG emissions,” said Patrick Decker, president and chief executive of Xylem. “Our sector is energy intensive.

"However, smart application of technology makes it possible to manage water far more efficiently and affordably. Increasingly, utilities are finding ways to deploy technology to become more resilient and reduce emissions, while also addressing many of their operational concerns.”

Race to net zero

Water and wastewater infrastructure worldwide makes up approximately 2% of all GHG emissions according to Net Zero – The Race We All Win, produced by Xylem. A medium-size water utility offering both clean water and wastewater services can produce the equivalent of 42,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually from energy use alone — the same as 150 commercial flights from Paris to New York City.

This is before the impact of process emissions such as methane or nitrous oxide,
which can be more damaging than CO2, are considered. Simultaneously, demand for services continues to grow and as more people connect to water utilities, emissions will rise unless operations become more carbon efficient.

Xylem says its technologies have enabled customers to reduce their CO2-equivalent footprint by more than 2.8 million tonnes since 2019. Around the world, leading water and wastewater utilities are focusing on such solutions to reduce their GHG emissions.

In Europe, for example, 31% of the utilities and municipalities responding to the survey plan on installing more energy-efficient technologies. Some 29% are looking into smart water meters that allow customers to monitor their own usage, along with enhanced leak detection technology.

Treating and pumping water uses lots of energy, so reducing water lost from networks and consumed by households all helps lower carbon consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In North America, 35% of municipalities have plans to advance their decarbonisation goals.

“The water sector has an important role in the global effort to reduce GHG emissions.”

Patrick Decker, Xylem

With 37% of North American respondents citing resilience to extreme storms and floods as a major concern, advanced digital solutions are also helping water managers improve operational and environmental outcomes at an affordable cost. Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) in New York state saved US$145 million by deploying a smart sewer system that reduced polluted water flowing into its rivers during storm events – ultimately solving a longstanding problem without spending on new infrastructure.

“To bridge resource gaps and serve our communities as efficiently as possible, we need to work smarter,” said Oluwole McFoy, BSA general manager. “We have shown this technology is effective and can help ensure that Buffalo is more efficient and prepared for the changing climate and the more intense storms coming our way.”

Many utilities ranked process emissions – such as methane and nitrous oxide – close to last in their priorities for action, despite their significant impact, showing that a better understanding of this issue and technological innovation are needed to tackle total water-sector emissions.