What COP27 Means for Water

As COP27 stretched into the weekend, fraught negotiations focused on hammering out a deal to support vulnerable nations as they deal with increasingly severe climate disasters. Around 74% of these disasters can be classed as water-related – pushing the water sector to the fore of the climate debate.

To get behind the headlines, Xylem’s Austin Alexander, vice president of sustainability and social Impact, and Alexis de Kerchove, senior director of client sustainability, broke down the practical takeaways for the water sector.

Growing Recognition for the Intersection of Water & Climate Change

De Kerchove: At COP27, water was highlighted as one of the foremost challenges in any climate event. With a dedicated Water Day and a Water Pavilion, this increased profile coincided with a more diverse array of stakeholders attending, a positive change towards a more integrated approach to finding water solutions.

For example, the UN Race to Zero and Race to Resilience campaigns demonstrate the importance of the contribution of non-state actors in building projects and investments towards the four objectives of the Marrakech Partnership: strengthening resilience, financing climate actions, accelerating implementation, and building trust and credibility. The UN’s Climate Change High-Level Champions also highlighted the importance of investment in water on the global climate agenda by sharing six water developments on a list of 50 key climate projects published, to highlight the opportunities for climate financiers.

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Common Action

De Kerchove: While climate goals gain momentum – 1,140 cities worldwide have made carbon pledges – progress against those goals remains sluggish. COP27 saw the introduction of additional guidelines designed to define net-zero plan parameters and make ambitions more concrete.

Pledges and climate mitigation actions can drive progress, but the water sector lacks common standards, which undermines the efforts to achieve shared goals. For our sector to make strides, we need access to recognized target standards and commitment platform that can enable greater alignment and benchmarking. Europe for example, demonstrates great ambition to lead the decarbonization of the sector and would benefit significantly from common guidelines for carbon management and target setting across its member states.

But this is certainly not just be about energy and carbon. Process emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are the largest contributor to GHG emissions from wastewater management. As regions reform wastewater management with ambitious new targets of energy neutrality, such as the new proposal of the Urban WasteWater Treatment Directive in Europe, we need to address these process emissions with clear monitoring obligations and reduction targets.

Alexander: Despite the rhetoric and targets, global carbon emissions are rising. The water sector is no exception. Water sector emissions could double by 2040 to service growing demand. Without significant intervention, we will miss our targets.

Our sector needs to transition quickly. Not only do we need to reduce emissions, but we also need to provide affordable service to a growing population. An integrated approach built on technology, agility, and transparency is vital.

As Alexis emphasized, the focus should not only be on energy and carbon. Water infrastructure represents 1.8% of global GHG emissions but represents 4.7% of global methane emissions. This is a problem - methane sets the pace for warming in the short term, holding triple the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the environment.

Money Matters

De Kerchove: Meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – "clean water and sanitation for all" – requires investment. With an annual financing gap of $1.85 billion to meet this target and climate investment into water languishing in the low single digits, new financing solutions were a priority at the Water Pavilion. Financing for climate mitigation and adaptation was also high on the agenda, with a goal of shifting investment from conventional grey infrastructure to sustainable, resilient, and digital ones.

Increasing access to funding is essential. Investors are looking towards low-carbon investments, driven by legislative requirements. For the water sector, it is essential to get access to new financing tools and embrace new business models. Greater transparency has the potential to move the needle with investors.

The persistently low level of climate finance flowing to the water sector was a discussion point, with many delegates pointing to the need to craft high-quality investment proposals requiring enhanced data and greater transparency.

The Demand for Tech & Data

Alexander: The need for more investment is indisputable, but solely focusing on finance as the path to progress would be a mistake. The need is too great.

Instead, there is an increased need for technology and data to expedite progress. Technology — particularly in adaptation – can have a significant impact. The ability to bring new tech to market quickly, and in ways not dependent on massive capital expenditure, is vital.

The focus on new technology is always topical, but greater adoption of existing technologies can be transformative. Maturation of the digitalization of water and wastewater management can lead to greater performance at low capital intensity. Sewer overflows can be eliminated by enabling a digital twin and machine learning to forecast the effect of heavy rain on the network and optimize the use of exiting hydraulic volume to prevent flooding. In drinking water distribution, the targeted elimination of water losses can be fully enabled with digital solutions, preventing wasteful utilization of water and energy in the treatment and transport of highly purified water.

The sector is also data-hungry. More data is needed to generate insights into solutions in the water space and to enable benchmarking, but it can also support investment in the sector.

An open approach

De Kerchove: Knowing what is working, and what is not, is essential. Historically, water industry players have been protective of their data. This mindset persists, but the increasingly critical need to progress water goals, coupled with changing regulations, such as the introduction of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, will move the needle.

Openness to sharing data from all water actors can build the trust needed amongst stakeholders to trigger more collaborative projects. Organizations are navigating extraordinary change and the reporting demands are already complex – national, European, and global. Water utilities are already championing the exchange of experience, such as through the European Benchmark Co-Operation. There is an opportunity to extend this to solution and service providers - breaking commercial mistrust and focusing on the value cogeneration from mutual experience and streamlining requirements to lessen the burden on utilities.

Next stop New York

Alexander: A common refrain heard when the topic of water surfaced at COP27 was the impending UN 2023 Water Conference taking place in March 2023. Water underpins most crises we are seeing. These must drive the creation of a real post-conference water strategy, with clear goals and proper connections to other resource strategies.

The opportunity to solidify water commitments is hugely valuable, but what COP27 has shown us is that we should not wait to make progress. We have the knowledge, experience, and technology we need to effect meaningful change now.

About the Author

Austin Alexander | Vice President, Sustainability and Social Impact, Xylem

Austin Alexander is vice president of sustainability and social impact for Xylem. Alexander can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Alexis de Kerchove | Senior Director, Client Sustainability, Xylem

Alexis de Kerchove is senior director of client sustainability for Xylem. De Kerchove can be reached at [email protected].

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