Fight Climate, Save Water

By Woody Chan 22 March, 2020

Happy World Water Day! This year it's all about water & climate but as CWR's Chan shows, the two are inseparable

COVID-19 may have helped lower emissions but this will likely rebound; we cannot afford to let it ramp up given severe impacts on water resources - Asia's vanishing Third Pole is just one example
Some mainstream investment bodies & regulators are moving beyond carbon transition risks to look at water-related disruptions; holistic management of water-energy-climate nexus still needed
It's not just about freshwater - climate change also threatens to send our coastal cities underwater; if you want to take action while social distancing we have some tips for you below!

With COVID-19 on our minds, climate change is being put on the back burner – but fight on we must. After all, although we are seeing a fall in emissions from China and pollution levels declining around the world, these may well rebound post-outbreak especially given industry will likely ramp up to make up for lost time. We need to make sure this does not happen – especially given the potentially terrible consequences for water.

Emissions may well rebound post-outbreak with industry making up for lost time

Indeed the tight interlinkage between climate and water is not new. As the French Ambassador for Climate Change asked the world’s water community gathered at the World Water Forum in 2015: “Water is already mentioned in 80 percent of the national climate change plans. What more do you want?”

What more do we want indeed? Are mere “mentions” enough or do we have to think about water and climate more holistically? This World Water Day, find out five reasons why we need to fight climate change to save water and some extra tips when self-quarantining!

1.  Climate change = uncertain freshwater availability

Water is life. Without water we would not be able to survive. But increasingly, a warming world is threatening our freshwater availability.

In the Rockies, snowpack has declined by 41% in the past three decades

High-profile case studies are already being seen around the world. Just look at Cape Town – a global city that got dangerously close to running out of water because of mismanagement and unexpectedly low rainfall. Elsewhere in the US, the Colorado River is drying up due to climate change, California faced its driest February in 2020 since 1864 and in the Rocky Mountains, snowpack has declined by 41% in the past three decades (enough to supply drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix for 4 years).

It’s not just isolated cases. Asia’s water resources are also under threat. Many have heard of the North Pole or the South Pole melting but how about the Third Pole? It is located in the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya region (HKH) and according to a landmark 2019 report by ICIMOD produced by 200+ scientists, even if carbon emissions are dramatically cut and we succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5°C, 36% of the glaciers along in the region will be gone by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss soars to two-thirds.

What’s at risk? These glaciers are a critical water store for 1 in 2 Asians – 250 million who live in region plus 1.65 billion whose livelihoods depend on the 10 rivers that flow from the peaks into India, Pakistan, China and other nations. Moreover, the region generates USD4.3 trillion in GDP.

All this means Asia may not have enough water to develop so what can be done? Holistic development plans for entire basins from mountains to oceans are needed and thankfully China is already demonstrating how to do this in the Yangtze River basin.

      

2.  Water-related disruptions incoming – need to go beyond carbon transition risks

At the moment, most corporates, investors & banks are solely focused on the carbon transition risk, anticipating government policies such as carbon caps and taxes to reduce carbon emissions.

But really disruptions are going to be much wider. For instance, as flow components change in the Third Pole, physical water risks like floods and droughts are going to be exacerbated on top of water scarcity. Between 2010 and 2017, the HKH8 (countries from where 10 major Asian rivers emanate) suffered USD181bn in total economic damages due to floods. These risks are happening now; and set to get worse with climate change.

What’s more, national regulations to protect water resources accelerate risks. China especially is implementing a variety of policies to clean up and ensure water, energy and food security for the long term, is causing disruptions to corporates and investors. For more on these disruptions check out the Big Picture infographics for an updated at-a-glance view on water risks for: agriculture, power, metals & mining, food & beverage, textiles, and electronics.

70% of central banks & regulators see climate change as “major threat” to financial stability

The good news is some mainstream investment bodies and regulators are taking action. In 2019, 34 central banks and regulators showed that they recognise the vulnerability of financial systems to climate related risks as part of the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS). And in the last month we have noted the OMFIF & Mazars report Tackling Climate Change – The Role Of Banking Regulation And Supervision”, which found 70% of central banks & regulators see climate change as “major threat” to financial stability; plus University of Waterloo (supported by Global Risk Institute & Scotiabank) releasing the report Factoring Climate Risk Into Financial Valuation.

3.  Interlinkages within the water-energy-climate nexus

It’s not just risks – there are also opportunities to be grasped in the water-energy-climate nexus. In Asia for instance, 375mn people have no access to electricity from the HKH8 countries while 204mn people have no access to improved water sources. There is clearly much upside to improving the livelihoods of so many people but caution needs to be exercised.

There is opportunity in providing power & water in Asia but caution is needed

After all, power needs water to generate and water needs power to clean and deliver from source to tap. Thermal power (e.g. coal, gas, nuclear) is particularly reliant on water for cooling purposes as well as driving steam turbines whereas wind and solar PV are better for both carbon and water. Asia, therefore, needs to add the right power mix and find the best cooling tech to save on water and carbon emissions (which in turn impacts water resources).

For instance, according to our joint brief with IRENA, a combination of renewables and improved plant cooling tech can reduce water withdrawal intensity in Chinese power generation by as much as 42% and carbon emission intensity by 37% by 2030.

Indeed China is taking action to manage its tight water-energy-climate nexus by mandating in its 13th Five Year Plan that 20% of energy consumption should be from renewables by 2030. It is also cutting electricity demand and excess capacity in power intensive industries. Could this be a model for the rest of Asia going forward?

       

4.  Climate and water solutions constrain each other

To make matters even more complicated. We have a vicious cycle in which water scarcity limits climate change solutions and climate change limits water supply solutions.

Take hydropower for example. It is one of the most popular renewable energy sources in Asia and good for climate change but it requires water and is directed affected by water availability. Plus, alternatives like nuclear power generation and solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS) are both water intensive.

The water sector could be emitting as much as the global aviation & maritime shipping industries combined

On the flip side, our water supply is exacerbating climate change as well. Typically, water and wastewater utilities account for 3 to 7% of total greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in countries. This means that at the water sector could be emitting as much as the global aviation and maritime shipping industries combined.

Moreover, our solutions to water scarcity can also be highly carbon-intensive. Take desalination for instance. It has been touted as a potential solution for water-stressed regions (even in Hong Kong) but large-scale desal requires significant power. According to a WRI report, water from desal can consume 4x more energy than reclaimed water.

5. Don’t forget about saltwater – coastal cities going under water

Climate change is not just out to get our freshwater. As the seas rise and as more extreme weather events like typhoons and storm surges hit our coastal cities, we could find ourselves under the sea like the drowned city Atlantis sooner than we think.

80 airports globally could be underwater with just one metre of sea level rise

The alarm bells are ringing. In just the first two months of 2020, news came out that sea level rose faster along US coasts in 2019; that Antarctica saw its hottest day ever recorded at 20.8°C; that warm water was found beneath Antarctica that may accelerate melt; that two giant dams in North Sea may be needed to protect 25 million Europeans from rising sea levels. And according to a recent WRI report “Runways Underwater”, 80 airports globally could be underwater with just one metre of sea level rise.

All this may seem distant and hard to imagine but it is closer than you think. According to a report co-authored by CLSAU and CWR, extreme storm tides are set to hit key sectors in the Greater Bay Area by as early as 2030 – putting 4/7 airports, 43/50 ports, & half of Macao’s casinos at risk. Evidently, adaptation efforts need to be seriously stepped up if we are not decarbonizing aggressively enough.

       

Carbon & water tips when self-quarantining

As you can see, a lot is already being done to fight climate change and save water – from charting new waternomic development paths and the financial industry factoring in water risks to adding renewable energy that is good for water and climate. And while we self-isolate, even you and I are saving on a lot of carbon emissions by staying home – but we can do even more.

Take Netflix for example. Because every byte of data takes power to generate and transfer, Netflix users around the world are using up enough electricity to power Ireland for a month each day. The top tip here therefore is to stream in lower qualities. If you are in Europe, the good news is Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are already doing this for you due to the virus.

Taking 6-min showers instead of 12 for a year = saving as much emissions as driving from London to Rome

How about showers? If you take 6-minute showers instead of 12 for a year you could be saving 541kg of carbon emissions (more than the emissions from driving from London to Rome) and 23m3 of water (115 bathtubs). Also check out more tips on individual action to tackle climate change by clicking on the images below.

As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Warnings are necessary. But fear will not get the job done.” So in the face of all the crises we face, stay positive this World Water Day; Netflix and chill on lower quality and take shorter showers!

       


Further Reading

  • 5 Trends For The Year Of The Rat – Will the rat bring more outbreaks or will we get sunk like a drowned rat by water and climate risks? Or can we stay ahead with our wits and cunning to win the rat race? Find out what the lunar new year has in store for us in our 5 trends
  • Wastewater: Good To The Last Drop – Happy World Water Day! In the year of wastewater, we look at China’s management of the ‘waste’. Plus, what does the 13FYP hold? Action; given rising wastewater discharge & low re-use rates
  • Nature For Water In China & HK – Happy World Water Day! Given this year’s “Nature for Water” theme, we sat down with experts on nature-based solutions in China & Hong Kong from sponge cities to rivers and wetlands
  • Water: Leave No One Behind – Happy World Water Day! This year the theme is ‘Leaving no one behind’ so why do we still not have ‘water for all’? Climate change will only make it more difficult – let’s get our act together & start with this update from China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor

Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Previously, Woody worked for CWR from 2016 to April 2020. At CWR, Woody conducted research on the water-energy-climate nexus and related hidden risks including rare earths and other critical raw materials essential to the clean tech and high tech industries. His analysis can be found in the 2017 CLSAU Blue Book on “Toxic Phones: China controls the core” which examines pollution driven regulatory risks of minerals behind the mobile interface from the touchscreen to vibrations & sound. During his time at CWR, he gave TEDx talks on water and climate risks as well as presented at other educational events. Born in Hong Kong, Woody graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2016 with a BA in Geography.
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