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Water Positive: leveraging the synergies between CO2 and water to fight climate change

About the blog

Alejandro Sturniolo
Vice President of Marketing and Sustainability, H2O Innovation

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  • Water Positive: leveraging the synergies between CO2 and water to fight climate change

Climate change has emerged as one of the most urgent global challenges, capturing widespread attention in recent years. At its core, climate change is intimately connected to global warming, which signifies the long-term escalation of Earth’s average surface temperature. This phenomenon has unleashed a cascade of consequences that pose significant threats to our planet and societies. With escalating greenhouse gas emissions, largely driven by human activities, our climate system is undergoing profound transformations with far-reaching impacts. It is crucial to recognize the intricate relation between CO2 emissions and water management and prioritize the interdependence of these critical aspects in addressing the climate crisis.

Water resources, which are essential for life, are increasingly affected by climate change. Droughts and floods are becoming more frequent, leading to severe consequences: droughts result in water scarcity, crop failure, and ecological imbalances, while floods cause property damage, displacement, and death. Addressing these challenges and managing water resources sustainably is crucial to mitigate the impacts of climate change. As we strive to sustain development and prevent the economy from slowing down, we consistently emit CO2 through an increase in production. The cycle seems endless: despite the fact that almost everything we consume today claims to be low or zero in emissions, global emissions continue to escalate.

Many of the solutions proposed to date, such as the transition to renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, the conservation of forests and ecosystems, and sustainable agriculture, are merely palliative options that minimize our impact. Despite these efforts, we continue to set new greenhouse gas emission records. A remarkable solution to this problem is an economy that feeds on the carbon we generate, including the carbon produced since the first industrial revolution — an economy known as a “Carbon Economy”.

The carbon economy encompasses an innovative approach that capitalizes on the potential of carbon, transforming it into valuable resources

The carbon economy encompasses an innovative approach that capitalizes on the potential of carbon, transforming it into valuable resources for diverse sectors, thereby turning the problem into part of the solution. This paradigm relies on the use of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) technologies, which involve capturing carbon and utilizing it as a feedstock in sectors such as food production, fertilizers, building materials, lab-grown diamonds, polymers, plastics, and water purification. Each application can consume a part of the CO2 that needs to be removed, about 500 Gt from the existing stock of CO2 in the atmosphere. This remains a formidable task that requires collective action, such as implementing a learning-by-doing policy to decrease costs and the creation of “carbon negative markets,” as well as commercial action, such as creating financial securities that accelerate investment in off takes.

The scalability of CCU (Carbon capture, utilization) is directly tied to the size of the sector, enabling a greater contribution to address the issue. Notably, the water sector assumes a pivotal role as the backbone of the global economy, presenting the immense potential for effectively utilizing thousands of tons of CO2 captured from the atmosphere. Specifically, the water sector can leverage CCU technologies for critical processes such as wastewater treatment, desalination, and water reuse. The sector’s competitiveness is further enhanced by the fact that implementing decentralized CCU approaches and utilizing carbon on-site eliminates the need for carbon distribution and storage.

Globally, more than 1.1 billion cubic metres of water are managed each day through processes like wastewater treatment, desalination, and reuse. The captured CO2 from the atmosphere can be utilized in various applications within these processes, such as adjusting pH levels in desalination, controlling water pH in wastewater treatment, and facilitating water remineralization.

As a result of the potential synergies between carbon and water, we are embarking on a regenerative and sustainable initiative that promotes carbon negativity and water positivity. This initiative, which has garnered support from numerous major corporations worldwide, involves actively removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than is emitted, resulting in a carbon-negative ratio. Similarly, we strive to have a net positive impact on water resources through strategies such as water reuse, desalination, and integrated water management, aligning with the concept of Water Positivity. Inspired by Graciela Chichilnisky’s work with the carbon emission compensation market, the concept of Water Positivity stipulates that a company can only be deemed water positive if it generates more freshwater than it consumes.

A company achieves Water Positivity when its generation of purified water is greater than its direct or indirect consumption of freshwater

A company achieves Water Positivity when its generation of purified water is greater than its direct or indirect consumption of freshwater in the production of goods or services. Corporations can compensate for their water footprint and become Water Positive by reducing their overall water consumption and producing high-quality water through desalination and/or water reuse from non-potable water. This approach mirrors the fundamental processes of the hydrological cycle. The Water Positive initiative establishes a marketplace similar to the carbon credits market, compensating for water footprints in a manner comparable to CO2 emissions compensation. However, there are key distinctions between the two approaches. Carbon offsetting predominantly deals with gases and is independent of the location where emissions occur, while water offsetting involves additional variables such as water footprint trade, local water scarcity, transportation of produced water, and considerations related to social, economic, and environmental factors.

Like carbon offsetting, water offsetting offers a significant opportunity to strengthen ESG criteria within companies. The “E” (Environmental) aspect focuses on mitigating climate change and preserving the environment. Meanwhile, the “S” (Social) aspect contributes to sustainable development and the well-being of individuals and communities by generating more water than it consumes. The “G” (Governance) aspect acknowledges that companies dependent on substantial water volumes are exposed to water-related risks, including shortages and restrictions, which can impede operations and result in additional expenses.

The Water Positive framework was developed through a collaborative effort spanning two years and involving over 50 professionals from various academic backgrounds. The collaboration took place under the International Desalination Association (IDA) and its affiliated organizations and strategic partners. This initiative aims to establish a marketplace similar to the carbon credits market, but for water footprint compensation, which would help countries facing water scarcity to compensate for their water footprint trade in goods and services, addressing the water and climate crises simultaneously. While our efforts in implementing the carbon emissions offset market spanned more than 8 years, we cannot afford to wait that long to jumpstart the Carbon Economy. Time is of the essence, and the urgency is clear. The moment for action has arrived, and the stakes are high. Policy action is needed now to create a “carbon negative market” that trades carbon removal obligations and to establish new types of tradable securities that accelerate investment in carbon removal projects and reduce legacy carbon in the atmosphere. It is imperative that we seize this opportunity and move forward decisively.  

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