PA Consulting: Water sustainability a key part of climate change strategy

05 November 2021 3 min. read

Carbon emissions related to water usage are an overlooked element in the global effort to combat climate change. According to a new report from PA Consulting, leading global organizations could save 86 billion cubic meters of water (the yearly water consumption of Japan) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12 million tons by 2030 – approximately a quarter of the annual GHG cuts need to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement. The survey polled 73 large companies in beverages, fast-moving consumer goods, high-tech manufacturing, traditional manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals.

PA Consulting’s research attempts to expand the narrative from water scarcity to the related carbon impacts of water usage. Many industries use fresh, clean water to develop and manage products, and there are carbon costs as water is moved, treated, and heated. A computer chip factory in three months, for example, will consume 927 million gallons of fresh water, produce 15,000 tons of waste, and use 561m kilowatt-hours of energy.

One cup of coffee, meanwhile, takes 14 liters of water to produce and generates up to 60kg of carbon. The production of jeans and a t-shirt will typically consume 20,000 to 40,000 liters of water and have a lifetime carbon output of 48kg of carbon.

According to PA, an innovation specialist, organizations have significant opportunities to access water more greenly – via reuse or desalination – and with simple reduction. Nearly all surveyed companies said they could improve water efficiency by at least 5%, while 36% said they could improve efficiency by 10-19%.

Water supply sources

Awareness of the water-carbon nexus is lacking among businesses, however, with only 22% extremely aware of the relationship between water and carbon. As such, only 60% monitor carbon emissions from water use and only 66% have policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions from water use. Meanwhile, 68% have yet to understand their water usage importance by region and 39% don’t know where water usage is highest across their supply chain.

Low uptake of technology and data deficiencies are the largest barriers to monitoring water usage and its link to carbon emissions. Thirty-five percent of leaders cited a lack of technology and a lack of resources. They also pointed to an inability to share data, poor quality of data, and incompatibility of datasets. A lack of incentives and support from government were also noted as barriers.

“To progress further, faster, it’s imperative that leaders treat water as a high priority area of opportunity and think about the water-carbon relationship holistically across the entire supply chain,” Jonquil Hackenberg, head of climate response at PA Consulting, said. “But it will require focused attention on sustainability strategy and focus areas, in improving data, implementing and scaling new technologies such as green desalination, and looking into opportunities to partner and collaborate to achieve greater value and impact.”

Barriers to reducing water usage and associated carbon emissions

To make progress on greening their water use, organizations need to take four bold actions, according to the report:

1. Understand your water and decarbonization challenges and opportunities.
2. Determine greener ways to access water.
3. Innovate for water and energy efficiency.
4. Green your core business strategy and partner for everything else.

“Organizations can start small by investigating new and existing solutions that could easily slot into their water and carbon strategy, or they could take inspiration from the consumer sector which is ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering water efficiencies in design and product,” Hackenberg added. “The big carbon drop will only come through cleaner, greener, smarter water use and progress.”