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Is “Net Zero” a distracting buzzword for the water industry? Are we so caught up with the challenge of meeting net-zero goals that we’re sidelining other, more impactful objectives?

Below, I share my thoughts on how we can challenge the water industry to embrace the general narrative of the climate change movement differently, including:

  • Why such a simple narrative is compelling yet problematic for the water industry
  • Handprint versus footprint
  • The key differences between carbon and water
  • How utilities can focus on their handprint

Right now, the water sector seems to be embracing the same narrative that the climate change movement is using: Net Zero, or the race to zero.

This is problematic within the context of the water industry. The attributes and complexities of a gallon of water and a liter of water are fundamentally different from a tonne of carbon. While this simple, linear narrative is compelling and has a lot of value, I actively push back on what net zero really means for the water sector.

This means having a broad view of what the water sector is — and it’s not just utilities, but the private sector, civil society, and so on. My caution is that we need to be mindful of what we might get if we are obsessed with net zero as a strategy in the water sector.Recently, I co-authored a paper with Austin Alexander from Xylem on how we can take the very broadly defined water sector and move it from an extractive industry to a renewables strategy. In place of the race to net zero that involves very uncertain outcomes, I believe that this is the conversation we need to be having.

A more sophisticated way of looking at water’s attributes — attributes that carbon doesn’t have — is needed, and the value creation that can be accessed when we expand our thinking beyond net zero.

Shifting the narrative: Handprint versus footprint

I’m a very vocal advocate of handprint versus footprint. My thoughts around this topic began a few years ago when I wrote an article, prompted by a good friend who works for Intel and who is very involved with climate change and carbon.

His view is that the handprint of Intel as a corporation is more powerful and more impactful than merely looking at its footprint. Thinking about what handprint provides and can deliver is the ability to leverage the unique attributes and value of a multinational corporation in terms of industry sector, the scale of their workforce, and the speed at which they can influence change.

In the private sector especially, but also the public sector, we really need to be shifting the narrative from footprint to handprint. Unfortunately, what I’ve often come up against are companies that are only interested in saving liters and gallons of water —  a very simple volumetric calculation — because they’ve committed to becoming water neutral or water positive. 

In terms of what the private sector could do to be part of the solution, there are so many more opportunities, and I believe it’s time for both the public and the private sector to think about their handprints and what they can deliver.

Focusing on the differences between carbon and water

For some, this might be controversial, but when we look at the differences between water and carbon, carbon accounting is easy because it’s fungible. A tonne of carbon is the same anywhere in the world. A liter of water is unique, and water has environmental, economic, social, and spiritual attributes that need to be honored and understood if we are to address water scarcity, poor water quality, and equitable access to water. 

Essentially, we’re dumbing the issue down if we treat water the same way we do carbon accounting. I’m not implying that addressing climate change is easy — it certainly is not. But, I do think that we are really hurting ourselves if we take water and push it into a carbon construct, all the while ignoring some of the very unique and valuable attributes of a liter of water.

How utilities can focus on their handprint

Let’s look at the opportunities that utilities have with respect to handprint versus footprint impacts. Reducing their footprint involves reducing energy use and their carbon footprint by being more efficient in how they extract, transport, and treat water — all of which are great.

The handprint for utilities, however, considers issues such as their role in increasing education and awareness within their customer base and workforce. 

Helping civil society understand that this is not a drought, that this is a long-term trend, and that we need to fundamentally change how we value and manage water is a challenge for the water industry and the American West. For me, the utility sector’s handprint opportunity is on the softer side of addressing some of the water challenges that we face right now and will continue to face. 

Utilities don’t just deliver water. They engage with consumers, customers, civil society, and a range of stakeholder groups. If we can get the utility sector to think about how critical a role they play, beyond delivering safe drinking water and water for other purposes, I believe we can mobilize the sector and do bigger things faster to solve some of the challenges that we’re facing right now.

Qatium experts

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO at Water Foundry and is one of many experts that we co-create with Qatium.