Utilities as engines for climate action

Keith Hayward

Utilities, including city departments charged with water-related responsibilities, are at the heart of urban life. Toronto Water (page 30) and the Ruhrverband (page 38) are but two mature examples of these. Their investment plans shape the fabric of the lives of those who live in the areas they serve. The same goes for the nascent sanitation services of inclusive, city-wide approaches (page 26) – these are built on relevant authorities providing centralised leadership and planning to guide this access.

This puts utilities at the sharp end of climate change, dealing with the shifting impacts of flood and drought through practical actions and, increasingly, setting out and implementing ambitions that span both adaptation and mitigation measures.

With the latest COP meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change now done, this is a role that is becoming ever-more important. The water sector’s voice is – or should be – a crucial one and, at the same time, it offers a credible one. The sector can speak first-hand of the current and future challenges around coping with the impacts of climate change. This is alongside those opportunities to execute and share its own mitigation actions to help turn the tide on emissions.

The optimistic view of COP28 is that it at last marks the turning point on a transition away from fossil fuels. But given that 2023 is set to go down on record as the hottest year in history, to say that this turning point is long overdue is an understatement.

There were other positives, meaning COP28 marked progress on initiatives and action fronts that the water sector can engage with and champion.

To begin with, there was the adoption of the framework of a global goal on adaptation. With a focus on resilience and adaptive capacity, this includes access to water and protection of aquatic ecosystems as central aspects of an initiative aiming in particular at the billions of people vulnerable to climate change impacts.

There are also goals of tripling renewables and of doubling energy efficiency measures, in which every country has a part to play. There is operationalisation of the fund for loss and damage, marking a step towards this area as the third pillar of climate action. Another is the progress on actions to cut emissions of methane.

These are all areas in which utilities can respond to the need for climate action. Decisions on this will not be made in a vacuum; investment plans and expenditure need to be justified, as do any resulting tariff changes. This is as it should be. Indeed, a robust case for practical steps firmly grounded as contributions to a bigger picture is precisely what is needed from the sector to best open the way for action and commitments by others.

This all means utilities can be engines for climate action in two ways. One is a direct role, contributing to local and national climate policy and actions. The other is indirect, through interactions, partnerships, and the projection of their voices into the public domain. Both can contribute to the formulation of the next Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are to be prepared in the run-up to COP30 in 2025. These NDCs will be vital in shaping prospects for climate security. The voice of water utilities needs to be heard.

Keith Hayward, Editor