The climate crisis has featured prominently on the news in recent years. However, the looming global water crisis – just as much of a risk to the global population – gathers fewer headlines. The two have many links. Climate change is one of the key factors affecting the global water supply while the production and use of water have their own carbon (CO2) footprint. Here, we argue for a holistic approach that appreciates that water footprint needs to be understood separately while at the same time being part of the wider environmental problems affecting us all.
What is a water footprint and a CO2 footprint?
Concepts for both carbon (CO2) footprint and water footprint were developed in the 2000s as ways of conceptualizing and measuring human imprint on the planet as the need to adopt more sustainable ways of living began to take place. Both are empirical measurements captured across periods of time that can be broken down in various ways, e.g. by nation, industry, household, or even individuals.
The CO2 footprint is essentially the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of daily activities and the production of material goods, measured in terms of kg/tonnes per year. Pretty much everything we do or consume can result in CO2 emissions, from car journeys to using electric power to the production of our daily goods. Reducing the CO2 footprint is a key component of tackling the climate crisis.
The water footprint is similar to the CO2 footprint in that it is a metric measurement taking into account daily activities and the production of goods, measuring the consumption and contamination of global freshwater resources in liters/cubic meters per year. As with CO2 emissions, most of what we do and consume daily involves water use. However, water is not carbon and what is being measured here is the use of an essential resource rather than the production of something harmful. But reducing our water footprint is also key to becoming more environmentally sustainable.
The links between water footprint and CO2 footprint
Although water footprint and CO2 footprint are separate measurements that need to be considered separately, there are overlaps between the two. The water industry is an energy-intensive sector. The carbon footprint of moving, treating, and heating water for both household and commercial use in the US has been measured at around 290 million metric tonnes per year. The CO2 footprint of water is increased through:
- groundwater pumping to source freshwater, which uses energy-intensive methods
- transporting water over large distances using pipelines, canals, and container shipment
- the manufacturing of bottled water which has a global annual CO2 footprint of up to 192 million tonnes
- water-intensive household and commercial use of water for irrigation, washing, heating, and cooling, which is also energy-intensive
Additionally, the energy sector is also water-intensive. Research has shown that around 52 billion cubic meters of freshwater are used annually for global energy production.
Using a holistic approach to reduce both water and CO2 footprint
The current crisis offers the opportunity to use a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to transform the way we use energy and water, employing both new technologies and behavioral change to reduce both our water and CO2 footprint.
With regards to the water footprint, employing new and more sustainable recycling technologies such as greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting systems, smart water-saving sensors and low-flow systems will improve both water and energy efficiency in homes and businesses. These technologies also make it possible for water to be sourced and treated on-site, decentralizing the network, and reducing water transportation.
Meanwhile, shifting to renewable energy sources is likely to have a positive effect on the water footprint. Studies have shown that solar power uses only between 2-15% of the water used in fossil fuel energy production.
Furthermore, behavioral changes such as moving towards a more vegan diet, reducing consumption of single-use bottled water, and using more sustainable agricultural and industrial practices will help us save water supplies and protect the planet at the same time.
A number of global companies, including Nokia and Nestle, have adopted a holistic approach to carbon and water sustainability in recent years, tackling both their water footprint and their CO2 footprint in a combined strategy.
Contact Water Experts to find out more about how you can become more environmentally sustainable and save on water. We provide professional advice, tailored assessments, and the latest in water sustainability technology such as our range of SolarAQ systems.