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The UK water sector has ambitious commitments to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and has produced the world’s first sector-wide net zero routemap.


The drive to decarbonise also has big implications for the decisions that will be taken, and will affect everything from investment to day-to-day operations.

Underpinning this agenda are some significant projects being undertaken by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) around reducing carbon emissions. UKWIR is responsible for shaping and facilitating the water industry’s collaborative research agenda, drawing on the input of its water company members across the UK and Ireland. This helps the water industry to tackle key challenges, now and in the future.

UKWIR’s work is guided by 11 ‘Big Questions’ facing the water industry, including ‘How do we remove more carbon than we emit by 2050?’ This covers:

  • Energy & transport – decarbonising through avoidance, efficiency and alternatives to fossil fuels
  • Process emissions – minimising emissions through prevention, optimisation or capture
  • Land use & carbon capture – maximising carbon sequestration potential
  • Investment & procurement – minimising emissions in materials, consumables, products and services, and credible offsets
  • Customers – reducing emissions related to customer behaviour
  • Cross-cutting – low carbon, sustainable water cycle management
Measured improvement

Accurate measurement of greenhouse gas emissions is critical. As well as directing attention to activities with the largest emissions, having credible carbon accounting tools helps governments, regulators, stakeholders, and customers have confidence in the water industry’s ability to meet its carbon commitments.

The sector’s carbon accounting workbook, which is updated each year via UKWIR, provides a consistent method for water companies to report their emissions to regulators and other stakeholders. It is recognised as a leading piece of work, and few sectors have developed anything similar to date.

Among UKWIR’s recently completed projects was the development of a land carbon sequestration tool. This enables quantification of emissions from water sector land holdings, and of how much CO2 is absorbed by different types of land cover. As a result, it also shows how CO2 absorption can be increased through activities such as peatland restoration, tree planting and better land management.


Carbon expenditure

UKWIR has also overseen a review of best practice for calculating whole-life carbon impacts and costs. As well as operational emissions over the entire lifespan of equipment, this includes the embodied carbon of capital investment schemes (also known as capital carbon), and the contribution of other supply chain emissions, such as those related to treatment chemicals.

UKWIR reviewed the tools currently available to water companies for estimating the capital carbon of new assets, and how they are used. These tools are becoming more standardised, but uptake has been variable across the sector.