Carbon News Digest June 12, 2011

  • Out with ‘my business’: in with ‘our world’

    It’s time for the next wave of the sustainability revolution, says Sally Uren

    February 2011. Central London. The CEO of a major multinational takes the stage in front of over 1,000 senior people from business and NGOs, to give a compelling presentation about how his organisation is dealing with its direct sustainability impacts. Proof surely that sustainability is now mainstreamed in business? Indeed, this is impressive stuff: a sign of how seriously business leaders now take sustainability.

    So, we can all relax. The top guys get it.

    Well, not quite. The CEO mentioned above unwittingly went on to offer the audience much more accurate coordinates for where his business is on its journey towards sustainability. When someone piped up with that supremely inconvenient question about whether he saw the company’s sustainability programme ever prompting the business to rethink its growth strategy, back came the answer very quickly: “No”.

    Oh dear.

    According to many, we are currently witnessing the next industrial revolution – the one where business puts sustainability at the heart of its operations. If this is a revolution, then most businesses are still in the first wave of change. They see sustainability through the lens of their organisational goals. Which is why the question around what constitutes sustainable economic growth is so difficult.

    There are far fewer examples of organisations who have upgraded their lens on sustainability to take a wider view – a systems view. One in which they begin to look at the broader, indirect impacts of their business on both society and the planet. This is the next wave of the revolution. And it needs to happen soon.

    It’s all very well to see squillions of businesses with carbon reduction targets, tweaking the sustainability credentials of their goods and services. But if we are producing more and more stuff, which is only slightly more sustainable, then on aggregate, it’s likely that carbon emissions will keep rising and key resources will either run low, or run out. Frustratingly, many businesses still insist on using ‘normalised’ targets – to reduce carbon or water intensity per volume of sales – instead of absolute targets. So the impact per product may be less, but they’re selling more.

    For me, the next wave of this sustainability revolution must be characterised by a fundamental shift in perspective from ‘my business’ to ‘our world’. The question changes from ‘How can we reduce our impacts?’ to ‘What is our role in a sustainable future?’ It’s a much harder question to answer, but one that can’t be avoided for very much longer.

    Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

  • New feed-in tariff levels for large scale solar and anaerobic digestion announced today
    New feed-in tariff levels for large scale solar and anaerobic digestion announced today

    New generation tariffs for large scale solar and anaerobic digestion under the Government’s green electricity scheme have been confirmed today. 

    Today’s announcement follows the recent public consultation on large scale solar and anaerobic digestion which closed on 6th May 2011.  The fast track review looked at reducing the tariffs for large scale solar to protect the money available for small scale projects and the range of technologies supported under this scheme. The review was launched following initial evidence showing the number of large scale solar projects in the planning system to be much higher than anticipated.

    Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said:

    “I want to drive an ambitious roll out of new green energy technologies in homes, communities and small businesses and the FIT scheme has a vital part to play in building a more decentralised energy economy.

    “We have carefully considered the evidence that has been presented as part of the consultation and this has reinforced my conviction of the need to make changes as a matter of urgency. Without action the scheme would be overwhelmed.  The new tariffs will ensure a sustained growth path for the solar industry while protecting the money for householders, small businesses and communities and will also further encourage the uptake of green electricity from anaerobic digestion.”

    From the 1st of August 2011, new entrants into the FIT scheme will receive amended tariffs as set out below:

    Solar PV:

    >50 kW – ≤ 150 kW Total Installed Capacity (TIC) – 19.0p/ kWh
    >150 kW – ≤ 250 kW TIC – 15.0p/ kWh
    250 kW – 5 MW TIC and stand-alone installations – 8.5p/ kWh

    Anaerobic digestion:

    ≤ 250 kW – 14.0p/ kWh
    >250 kW – ≤ 500 kW – 13.0p/ kWh

    Over 500 responses were received and carefully analysed before a decision was made regarding the change in tariffs. The fast track review showed that the number of planned larger PV projects is much higher than originally expected.  Without urgent action, the scheme would have been overwhelmed within a very short period of time. Every 5 MW large scale solar scheme would incur a cost of approximately £1.3 million per year, which means that 20 such schemes would incur an annual cost of around £26 million, money that could support PV installations for over 25,000 households. 

    The changes, to take effect from 1st August for new installations and subject to Parliamentary and State aid clearance, will help manage the finances of the Feed-in Tariffs to ensure value for money for the consumer and to help protect the scheme in the future.  Solar schemes under 50kW are unaffected by this review.

    Notes for Editors

    1. The FIT scheme started in April 2010 and to date over 40,000 installations have registered for this scheme.  The scheme aims to encourage the deployment of additional small scale low carbon electricity generation by individuals, householders, businesses and communities who have not traditionally participated in the electricity market.
    2. Figures on uptake can be found on the Ofgem website via their live data reports (view Public Reports)
    3. The Government response to the fast track review is available to download via the consultation page on the DECC website.
    4. The Government will not act retrospectively and any changes to generation tariffs implemented as a result of the fast-track review will only affect new entrants into the FITs scheme. Installations which are already accredited for FITs at the time the changes come into force will not be affected.
    5. Further details on how the costs of the FIT scheme are managed via the control framework for DECC levy funded spending are published on the HMT website: see Control Framework for DECC levy-funded spending (PDF) and Control framework for DECC levy-funded spending (HMT web page)
    6. A consultation on the comprehensive review of the scheme will be launched this summer with intention that resulting changes to the scheme take effect from 1st April 2012, unless the review itself reveals a need for greater urgency.
    7. Greg Barker’s Written Ministerial Statement
    8. FITs page on the DECC website


  • Paris hosts the world’s first municipal EV hire scheme

    Parisians can now hire blue, battery-powered, bubble-like cars 
    Parisians will soon be zipping round Charles de Gaulle Etoile in little blue bubble-like cars, as the world’s first municipal electric vehicle (EV) hire scheme gets underway. Mayor Bernard Delanoë has pioneered the €110 million Autolib initiative to complement the Vélib bicycles, introduced in 2007. The fleet of 3,000 lithium battery-powered cars is designed by Italian partner Pininfarina, best known for their work on desirable brands like Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. Manufactured by French company Bolloré, they will be available later this year from 1,000 self-service hire points throughout the city.

    The four-seater ‘Bluecars’ will be able to travel about 250km on one charge, with a full recharge taking around four hours. They’re designed for efficiency rather than pace: a top speed of 130km/h won’t thrill Jeremy Clarkson. But for people simply wanting a straightforward car to hop across town in, they could be ideal. They come equipped with GPS and an emergency call button in case of an accident.

    Subscription to the scheme costs just €12 a month, with additional charges of €5 for the first half an hour of use, €4 for the next, and €6 for each subsequent 30-minute slot. The charging rates are clearly designed to favour single, short-ish trips, rather than compete with mainstream car hire schemes. Bluecar needs to attract just 160,000 subscribers to cover its costs, an achievable feat in a city where 58% of the population do not own a car, and 16% of those who do use it less than once a month.

    Low-carbon vehicle designer and entrepreneur Hugo Spowers waxed lyrical about the scheme. “It kills a lot of birds: embodied carbon, congestion from parked cars, the cost [of ownership] to consumers…” Another fan is London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is keen to copy his Parisian counterpart on this scheme, as he did with the bikes. Discussions have opened at the London Assembly, but so far no funds have been allocated.

  • What’s a tree really worth?

    Software puts a price on the vital environmental services provided by trees

    The Leyland Cypress is the ultimate privacy tree, spreading its evergreen leaves so thickly and quickly that neighbours end up in arms over restricted views. But what’s it really worth? The South Devon Borough of Torbay, where 14.5% of all trees are Leylandii, is determined to find out. Using open source software developed by the US Forest Service, the local council is calculating the value of its urban forest – not just the notorious suburban cypress, but grander trees, too.

    It’s not an idle endeavour. Beyond their aesthetic value, trees provide vital ecosystem services: cleaning the air, managing rainfall, storing carbon, reducing noise pollution and stabilising temperatures. Take out a tree, and you lose a free service. But until now, little assessment of the financial burden caused by the damage or destruction of local trees has been undertaken in the UK.

    Torbay Council’s Arboricultural Services team is using i-Tree Eco software to measure the environmental services and corresponding financial values of local trees. The project, a collaboration involving Forest Research and Natural England, collects data on the way trees:
    • save energy: their shade cools buildings in summer, and offers some shelter from winter winds
    • store and sequester carbon (and at what rate)
    • reduce pollution through filtration.

    It will also assess the ‘structural value’ of the trees, including the cost of replacement. The findings will be used to establish a UK-wide benchmark for valuing trees.

    Initial findings have thrown up some big numbers. They suggest that Torbay’s 818,000 trees have a combined structural value of about £218 million. They store carbon at a rate of 4,200 tonnes a year, a sequestration service worth nearly £1.5 million in total.

    According to Kenton Rogers, the lead consultant in the consortium, “the trees with the largest canopies deliver the most benefits, but here in Torbay – with its views of the sea – these are the trees especially vulnerable to developers”.

    In the US, i-Tree Eco has already made its mark. A study valuing the ecosystem services of New York’s trees at $122 million a year prompted Mayor Bloomberg to back the planting of one million trees over a ten-year period.

    Putting a price on natural resources may go against the grain for naturalists and aesthetes, but as Pavan Sukhdev demonstrated with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study [see ‘Don’t know what you got till it’s gone’], financial costs represent a ‘bottom line’ which holds sway for communities, businesses and policymakers alike.

  • Chris Huhne’s article in the Northern Echo – 4 June 2011
    Chris Huhne's article in the Northern Echo - 4 June 2011

    World Environment Day

    It’s been twenty years since the first World Environment Day dedicated to climate change.

    Back then, Britain didn’t have a single windfarm. The idea that the way we heated our homes and powered our cars could be threatening our way of life – and that the Government should do something about it – didn’t catch on until much later.

    At the Department of Energy & Climate Change, we’re doing everything we can to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and cut carbon out of the economy. From international negotiations to home insulation, we’re working to put Britain on a cleaner, greener path.

    We have three main priorities:

    First, we have to keep the lights on – delivering secure, clean, affordable energy.

    Over the coming decades we have to rebuild our ageing energy infrastructure, reducing our dependence on imports and our vulnerability to oil price shocks while keeping energy costs down.

    The financial challenge is huge: we need £200 billion by 2020. Government can’t provide that kind of money; but we can make the UK more attractive for investment. That’s why we’re reforming the electricity market – to encourage secure, green electricity.

    We’re also supporting low-carbon and renewable energy directly. We’re putting £860m into the Renewable Heat Incentive and £1 billion into the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage power plant. And we’re also continuing feed-in tariffs for wind, solar and micro-hydro, to encourage small-scale renewables.

    Our second priority is to support consumers and encourage energy efficiency.

    Making our homes and businesses more energy efficient can unlock carbon savings – and keep people warmer for less. That’s why we introduced the Energy Bill, which contains our flagship policy, the Green Deal.

    It’s a new programme to radically improve the energy efficiency of British properties. Energy saving packages worth thousands of pounds will be installed in millions of homes and businesses, right across the country.

    We’re also looking at how we can get people to engage with active energy saving. Together with Ofgem, we have published a prospectus for the delivery of electricity and gas smart metering, which will help consumers to use energy more efficiently.

    Our third priority is to do everything we can to avoid dangerous climate change.

    At the UN climate change conference in Durban later this year, we’ll be working toward a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Back home, we’ve set up the Capital Markets Climate Initiative to get private finance involved in tackling climate change in developing countries – and the Green Investment Bank to boost investment in low-carbon technology.

    We’re also looking to show leadership on emissions. In Europe, we’re arguing for the EU’s emissions reduction target to be raised to 30 per cent by 2020, putting us at the heart in the global green economy.

    The rationale for action is clear: and it’s not just about climate change. There are real opportunities here. Green growth can help get the UK economy back on track.

    Globally, the low-carbon sector is worth over £3 trillion; our share of the market tops £100 billion. There are over 900,000 green jobs here in the UK. There’s no reason we can’t break through the million mark by the end of this Parliament.

    We’re doing what we can to help. In the Spending Review, we secured £200 million for low-carbon technologies – including £60 million for port manufacturing infrastructure to bring offshore wind manufacturing to the UK.

    There are already promising signs. Last year, British Gas announced its plan to ‘go early’ on the Green Deal, investing £30 million and creating 3,700 new jobs. As the Green Deal kicks in, it will bring a real economic boost, driving growth in manufacturing and supply chains across the country. We think every household in the country could benefit from the Green Deal. With over 1.15 million homes in the North East, the opportunities for local suppliers and installers are strong.

    But green growth goes further than that. Britain is blessed not just with powerful tide, wave and wind resources; but also with scientific, business and engineering expertise.

    The North East is no exception.

    The New and Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth is at the forefront of low-carbon research. JDR Cable Systems, based in Hartlepool, specialises in subsea cables; together with CTC Marine from Darlington, they connected and installed the Wave Hub, the world-leading tidal power test facility.

    With a quarter of the world’s wave and tidal energy research happening here in the UK, these businesses are well placed to take advantage of green growth.

    From Middlesbrough to County Durham, firms are researching, designing, building and installing the technologies that will power the future here in the North East – and the world.

    No wonder a Swedish delegation visited Teesside to tap in to this growing renewable technology supply chain. No wonder UK is now home to the world’s biggest windfarm; nor that it’s the only country to have legally-binding carbon targets beyond 2020.

    We’ve come a long way in twenty years. Let’s make sure that when World Environment Day 2031 rolls around, the next generation can say the same. 

  • New material promises quick-charge EV batteries

    A new electrode material could increase battery charge speed by up to 60 times

    The charge speed of lithium ion batteries used in EVs could be increased by up to 60 times, thanks to a new electrode material developed by a team at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, potentially opening the door to a new generation of electric cars.

    The new material, dubbed ‘nanoscoops’ because its microscopic structural composition resembles a series of ice cream cones, can endure extremely high rates of charge and discharge that would cause the electrodes used in today’s lithium ion batteries to weaken and break.

    As a battery charges and discharges, the electrodes grow and shrink accordingly. Over time, these volume changes build up stress which can cause the battery to fail. Our mobile phones and laptops are designed to charge slowly to protect their batteries from failure. The carbon, aluminium and silicon structure of the nanoscoops electrode allows it to accept and discharge lithium ions at increased speeds, without sustaining lasting damage.

    The Rensselaer research team, led by Professor Nikhil Koratkar, charged and discharged a nanoscoops electrode at a rate 40 to 60 times faster than conventional batteries over 100 continuous cycles, while maintaining a comparable energy density. Today’s EVs depend on supercapacitors in conjunction with conventional batteries to perform high-energy functions, such as starting the vehicle. Koratkar believes the invention of nanoscoops could enable the two separate systems to be combined in a single, efficient unit.

  • China’s second eco-city set to soar

    Dongtan never took off, but hopes are high for Tianjin
    China’s much-hyped ‘zero-emission’ city of Dongtan [see ‘Greening the Dragon’, p12] may remain stuck firmly on the drawing board, but hopes are high for another eco-metropolis at Tianjin, on the Pacific coast 150km from Beijing. Tianjin Eco-City, a $607 million joint Sino-Singaporean project, is just over two years into development, with completion due in 2018 at the earliest.

    Built on 30 km2 of reclaimed wetlands, Tianjin will feature solar and geothermal energy, use waste heat from a nearby power plant for district heating, and have 50% of its water needs met through recycled or desalinated water – taking pressure off the area’s shrinking water table. Its buildings will conform to “strict green standards”, though as yet there isn’t a lot of detail as to exactly what that will mean in practice. The city will eventually be home to 350,000 residents, with wetlands features preserved and greened with plentiful trees and parks.

    So far, so impressive. Peer closely at other goals, though, and some look rather unimpressive: “all water from taps to be potable” should surely be taken as read, while meeting a paltry 15% of the city’s energy needs from renewables by 2020 is hardly a stretch target when you’re starting from scratch. But then remember that this is China, where eco-metropolises are a very new idea indeed. In a country whose capital has six ring roads (and counting), Tianjin’s target to have 9 in 10 journeys made by bike, foot or public transport, thanks in part to a planned rapid light transit railway, is verging on the courageous.

    Intriguingly, it includes a carbon target – albeit expressed cannily in relative economic terms, rather than an absolute or per capita goal – as follows: the carbon emission “per unit GDP should not exceed 150 tonnes per US$1 million”. Measuring this could be a complex task, to say the least.

    But perhaps the greatest innovations are social, not environmental. In a country where the rich-poor divide is a growing issue, the eco-city’s planners have put down some brave markers. A total of 20% of residential units are set aside for public housing, situated in amongst the rest, so that rich and poor rub shoulders in common community malls and parks. Again, this is a trend away from the ‘rich ghettos’ springing up elsewhere in the country, summed up by the goal that the city will have “100% barrier-free access” – no gated communities, in other words.

    While Dongtan foundered on a lack of clear political support, Tianjin is backed by some local heavyweights. Its steering group includes Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and China’s Vice Premier Wang Qishan.

    Madeleine Sturrock, Managing Director of PanCathay Consulting, has watched the scheme take shape. “What’s good about the Eco-City is that they have taken time to formulate their plan. In the two years I’ve been visiting, I’ve seen ideas evolve with intelligent ways of living, working and leisure built into the plan.”

  • Dairy2020 kicks off!

    The UK dairy industry is under pressure. From calls to cut carbon emissions, maximise production efficiencies, to meeting the changing demands from both retailers and the end-consumer, the UK dairy sector currently faces many and varied sustainability challenges. Yet the dairy industry provides products that promote health and wellbeing, helps sustain rural communities and plays a vital role in land stewardship. As an industry it is vital for a sustainable future.

    In the autumn of last year we spoke to various people in and close to the dairy sector, from farmers to milk processors, from retailers to trade bodies and from government departments to NGOs, and asked them how they felt the sector should respond to the range of sustainability challenges it currently faces. We also asked about the current barriers working against a sustainable dairy sector. Most organisations confirmed what we suspected. Despite a recent wave of excellent environmental initiatives within the sector, there isn’t a shared understanding of sustainability within the dairy value chain. Nor is there a shared understanding of what a sustainable dairy sector would look like. This is why we have set up Dairy2020.

    Dairy2020 is a pioneering project bringing together key players in the UK dairy sector to develop a sustainability strategy to ensure we have successful, sustainable and thriving industry in the future. The project, running between now and October 2011, aims to answer the question “what does a sustainable dairy industry look like, and what contribution can it make to a sustainable world?”

    With support from across the UK dairy industry, the project is led by its steering group, which currently includes: Asda, Dairy Co, two Dairy Co farmers, Dairy UK, Defra, First Milk, Forum for the Future, NFU and Volac. The steering group is supported by a wider working group which includes representatives from the majority of UK retailers (Morrisons, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose), representatives from branded manufacturers (for example Danone and Kraft), NGOs (for example WWF and LEAF), and crucially, representatives from the dairy farming community.

    Outputs from the project will include:

    • A short vision statement – this will be very top-line, but serve as a clear statement of ambition.
    • A set of scenarios, exploring the different possible worlds in which the dairy industry may have to operate in 2020.
    • Risks and opportunities for the dairy industry for achieving that vision in different possible futures.
    • Recommendations for action that will enable a sustainable dairy industry to thrive in 2020. These recommendations will specify the collective, and individual, action needed from farmers, processors, retailers, policy makers and beyond.

    We are deliberately using a futures approach in this project, as techniques such as scenario planning are effective in stimulating new insights and new collaborations across sectors, and can often help find new solutions to old problems.

    Ultimately we hope that Dairy2020 will spell out why dairy is such an important industry in the UK, and highlight the positive impacts a thriving, sustainable industry could have on the country’s economy, health and landscape.

    Find out more about Dairy2020 here.

    Dr Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future and is Project Director for Dairy2020

  • Pylon Design Competition launched
    Pylon Design Competition launched

    Press release: 11/045
    23 May 2011

    Joint press notice from DECC, National Grid and RIBA

    • Registration opens for architects, designers, engineers and students of these disciplines

    Architects, designers, engineers and students of these disciplines are being challenged to rethink one of the most crucial but controversial features of modern Britain: the electricity pylon.

    A new competition has today been launched, run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and National Grid, that calls for designs for a new generation of pylon.

    There are more than 88,000 pylons in the UK, including 22,000 on National Grid’s main transmission network in England and Wales.  These stand some 50 metres high, weigh around 30 tonnes and carry up to 400,000 volts of electricity over thousands of kilometres of some of the most exposed, weather-beaten parts of Britain.  But the familiar steel lattice tower has barely changed since the 1920s.

    As well as exploring the design of the pylon itself, the competition aims to explore the relationship between energy infrastructure and the environment within which it needs to be located.  The challenge is to design a pylon that has the potential to deliver for future generations, whilst balancing the needs of local communities and preserving the beauty of the countryside.

    Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said:

    “The dual challenge of climate change and energy security puts us on the brink of a new energy construction age.  The equivalent of twenty new power stations is needed by 2020, much more beyond that, and they’ll all need connecting to the grid.

    “It’s crucial that we seek the most acceptable ways of accommodating infrastructure in our natural and urban landscapes.  I hope the pylon design competition will ignite creative excitement, but also help the wider public understand the scale of the energy challenge ahead of us.”

    National Grid’s Executive Director UK, Nick Winser said:

    “Much of the new low-carbon generation is planned for remote or coastal areas, which means new infrastructure will be needed to get the electricity we need to our homes, businesses and vehicles.  While underground connection will be a viable solution in some sensitive locations, new and replacement pylons will be needed and National Grid is equally keen to support the development of the most visually acceptable overhead solutions.

    “The pylon as we know it has served the nation well, but new technologies and materials mean there may now be opportunities for new designs.  National Grid is excited to be part of opening up this design challenge.  We will give serious consideration to developing the winning design for use in future projects.”

    Ruth Reed, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), said:

    “Design has never been far from our energy network.  The current pylon design was chosen by Sir Reginald Blomfield, a leading architect of his day back in 1927, but the familiar steel lattice tower design has barely changed since then.

    “Architects, designers and engineers strive to improve the quality of our environments and our lives.  This is a technically challenging but exciting competition, with the potential to improve our landscapes for decades to come, and I expect it to generate widespread interest.”

    The competition closes on 12 July, with shortlisted candidates notified at the end of July. The shortlist will then have the opportunity to work with National Grid before submitting their final designs at the beginning of September. The designs will be open for the public to view and comment on via the competition website and also at an exhibition to be held at the V&A as part of London Design Festival (17-25 September).  The judging panel will meet in October to choose an overall winner.

    Chris Huhne will chair the judging panel, which will include Nick Winser, Director of the V&A Sir Mark Jones, architects Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and Bill Taylor, engineer Chris Wise, the journalist Jonathan Glancey and a senior representative from RIBA.

    A prize fund of £10,000 will be shared amongst the winning candidates and National Grid will give consideration to developing the winning design for use in future projects.

    The competition is now live and open for registration at

    Notes for editors

    All enquiries relating to the competition should be addressed to:
    RIBA Competitions
    The Studio, 32 The Calls, Leeds, LS2 7EW
    T:  +44 (0)113 2341335.  E: 

  • Water footprinting: why you’d be a fool not to

    With water supplies under stress, smart companies are seeking ways to shrink their thirst. David Burrows dips a toe in the tide.
    Look around you: at home, in the office, on the train, in the cafe… Almost everything you see took significant amounts of water to produce, source or transport. We depend on this precious resource for our health, our food, our infrastructure and industry. But until now, we’ve taken its abundant supply for granted, and paid very little for the privilege.

    These days of plenty will soon be over. Consultants McKinsey predict that by 2030 global water requirements will have grown from 4,500 billion m3 today to 6,900 billion m3. Such a hike means demand will exceed our current reliable and accessible supplies by 40%. And these are becoming increasingly unreliable as climate change kicks in.

    So who will feel the pinch? The answer’s simple: we all will – and not just because of headline-hitting drought. Supply chains for everything are at risk: from food to clothing, from cosmetics to concrete. Heavy industry needs water pressure to slice through steel; data warehouses need a constant flow to keep the servers cool.

    This isn’t just a problem for the future. Droughts across the world’s cotton belt triggered price rises that slashed the margins for high street retailers. The recent Russian dry spell led to export bans and historic highs in the price of wheat. Nestlé’s chairman has gone so far as to suggest that there’s a risk of running out of water before oil. [For more on these and other water issues, see ‘Plans for a low-water diet‘.]Last year, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) asked 302 of the world’s largest companies – mostly in food and drink, tobacco, metals and mining – how significant a concern water is to them. Over two thirds replied that they were already facing problems including water shortages and rising prices for extraction. Many are taking action to cut consumption, setting goals and reporting against performance. But this looming crisis is demanding something more rigorous than the watery equivalent of energy targets.

    “It’s beginning to dawn on companies that the supply could dry up”, says CDP’s Head of Water, Marcus Norton. “They want to get a handle on the risks, not only within their own operations, but up and down their supply chains.”

    Hence the growing interest in comprehensive ‘water footprinting’. It’s not an entirely new concept. It was first used in 2003 to calculate annual average water consumption per head, across a range of countries. Yemen had the smallest, at 619m3; the US topped the chart at 2,483m3. No surprises there. Then research shifted from countries to consumer goods, and the picture got more intriguing. We discovered that the average cup of coffee takes 140 litres to produce; an apple 70, and an egg 200 – mostly for feeding the hens. But one of the most detailed studies assessed the water footprint of … beer.

    In 2009, a report by WWF and SABMiller found that it takes 155 litres of water to make just one litre of beer – in South Africa. If you’re brewing in the Czech Republic, though, the footprint is just 45 litres. But before you reach for the Pilsner, there’s a catch: when it comes to water, size isn’t the be-all and end-all. This is what makes water footprinting a good deal more complex than its carbon equivalent, where it’s a simple case of the smaller the better.

    “The big difference is that carbon is a global concern, whereas water is a very local one”, explains Rob Lillywhite, a senior research fellow at the University of Warwick. A kilogram of CO2 emitted in Spain has exactly the same effect on the atmosphere as one emitted in New Zealand. But with water, the impact depends on the degree of water scarcity in the area it’s taken from.”

    Much as SABMiller found. The company has also mapped its water footprint in Peru, Tanzania and Ukraine, and identified different totals – and challenges – in each location. Even within South Africa, footprints varied. Barley grown in the hot and arid Northern Cape, and maize in the flat grasslands of the North West province, depend largely on irrigation using groundwater (known in footprinting terminology as ‘blue’ water). But in the Southern Cape and Mpumalanga province, there’s enough rainfall to quench the same crops with ‘green’ (rain) water.

    Elsewhere, it’s a different story. Take lamb. Cranfield University calculated that the production of a kilo of English lamb requires over 50,000 litres of water. On the surface, that sounds hopelessly unsustainable, and should be enough to put you off kebabs for life. But a whopping 96.6% of it is ‘green’ water. Many lambs graze rain-fed grasslands where water scarcity isn’t a problem, which means, says Cranfield, that the actual hydrological impact of English lamb production is “very small”.

    If location can make all the difference, so can timing. It’s one thing to take 100 litres from the ground in Suffolk, say, when it’s still soaking up the spring showers. Go back in the height of summer, when the water table is much lower, and it’s another story. The same applies with bells on in a country like India, where using a thousand litres of water during the dry season has a dramatically different impact than it would during the monsoon.

    So when it comes to working out the water footprint of a product or activity, a single figure doesn’t cut it. As Andy Wales, Head of Sustainable Development at SABMiller, puts it, “a water footprint is much more than just a number”. It’s a story, fleshed out with when, where and how.

    But conveying this level of detail to stakeholders, from the consumer to the business strategist, presents a challenge. It’s a lot to squeeze into a single label, let alone a single figure – which is what a wave of eye-catching statistics has led many to expect. WWF-UK’s water footprint expert, Ashok Chapagain, admits these headline figures (some of which he had a hand in calculating) are great for raising awareness about the extent to which water is embedded in our lives, but not helpful as a basis for decision making. He says businesses need to look behind the numbers, and into the detail: “That’s where the really great data is.”

    When SAB Ltd, the South African franchise, mapped the water use of its crops onto local availability, it found that the North West has sufficient resources to support the maize production, despite its dependence on irrigated water. More vulnerable, according to the study, is barley growing in the Southern Cape. There’s doubt as to whether, with a changing climate and growing population, there’ll be enough rainfall to meet future demand. So in this particular case ‘blue’ water is better than ‘green’.

    Overall, agriculture takes the lion’s share of water at 85%, compared to 10% for industry and just 5% in the home. So it’s no surprise that much of the early work on water footprinting has involved food and drinks companies. Smart players, though, are finding ways to cut water use right across their footprint. Take PepsiCo, owners of Walker’s crisps. First it cut use out in the fields [seePlans for a low-water diet‘; now it’s harvesting water lost in the cooking process, and using it to clean, peel and slice the potatoes as they enter the plant [see ‘PepsiCo to harvest water from spuds‘]. Spuds can be up to 80% water, most of which evaporates to give the crisps their crunch. Simply by placing cold lids above the steam to capture condensation, and installing filters in the waste pipes, PepsiCo can harvest over 3,000 litres of clean water an hour. It really can be as simple as that.

    For other companies, the end user is where the action is – or rather, needs to be.

    When Aquafresh toothpaste makers GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) commissioned a water footprint tool to identify potential savings, they came up with a surprise: no less than 99.7% of the toothpaste’s footprint comes right at the end of the chain – when people brush their teeth – largely because they leave the tap running. It was an area completely outside GSK’s control. Not to be deterred, the company launched a ‘Chiudi Il Rubinetto’ (switch off the tap) campaign in Italy, an area where domestic water supply could be at risk in the future.

    “It’s one of the few examples of an FMCG company marketing to its customers around water use”, says David Symons, a director of consultants WSP, which carried out the footprinting work for GSK. “What’s more, it’s an example of how to take an academic concept [water footprinting] and apply it to your business.”

    Persuading consumers to change behaviour – even in the simplest of areas – can be an uphill struggle [see ‘Winning the persuasion game‘]. So what about developing products that do the job for you? That’s the thinking behind a new concept for a ‘waterless’ washing machine, which uses nylon beads as cleansing agents, cutting water use by 90%. Designed by Leeds-based Xeros, this hit the spotlight a year ago when it was listed by WWF as a ‘green game changer’. But despite the ubiquity of dry cleaners on the high street, the public have so far struggled to accept a domestic washing machine that doesn’t need water.

    A less revolutionary approach adopted by Unilever may have more success. “We can’t tell women to have shorter showers, but we can develop hair conditioners that don’t take so long to rinse out,” says the company’s Sustainability Director, John Temple. Unilever, which makes household brands such as Dove, Persil and Timotei, has already brought a new conditioner to the Indian market, albeit one used on clothes; it requires a third less water to rinse out. In a country that is water stressed, the potential environmental impact could be significant, but there is a social benefit too: less water means less time spent fetching and carrying it, a laborious chore which can keep children from attending school and women out of employment.

    Unilever was able to identify this opportunity thanks to an expansive footprinting exercise: work that has, says Temple, proved “a fabulous resource for R&D and spotting new opportunities”. The company footprinted 1,600 of its products based on the metrics of waste, carbon and water. Temple says carbon is pretty straightforward, but with water “it’s a steep learning curve. However, if you take a pragmatic approach then it can be a very useful exercise.”

    While the approach must be pragmatic, the results can throw up a few surprises – or ‘outliers’, as statisticians like to call them. Without water footprinting, whoever would have known that Turkish people are the “pre-wash champions of Europe” with 44% indulging compared to the 7% EU average. But when Turks do their laundry, the study found, they also tend to under-fill their machines. As a result, this water-stressed country is consuming 30% more to clean clothes than the global average. With a well-known brand, Omo, already established in the market, Unilever had the scope to help change that.

    “We ran a big PR campaign with WWF to highlight good laundry habits, stop pre-washing [because it wastes water and energy] and reassure people that Omo washes brilliantly without [it],” says Temple. “Life cycle measurements like [water footprinting] allow you to spot these outliers and work on approaches to tackle them.” That isn’t always easy, he adds. “Trying to reduce our impacts at the consumption end is the biggest challenge we face. But, if we can encourage people to use different products that consume less water then we can make a real difference.”

    Changing consumer behaviour is one possibility, but some are looking to water footprinting as a means of changing entire sectors. Balfour Beatty, the construction company, is one of a handful of those outside the food and drink industry who have jumped in with both feet. The infrastructure group is working with consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) to develop a water footprint tool for both its internal operations and a variety of construction products. This will mark a shift in direction for water footprinting which, to date, has been most useful to manufacturers. “It’ll enable us to look at the design of a project, and the materials we are using, and determine whether there’s a way of reducing the water impacts ‘by design’,” explains Lynne Ceeney, PB Head of Sustainability for Europe and Africa. “No one has done anything like this on this scale in construction before.”

    Ceeney admits there is a plethora of issues to understand, but there’s no chance of anything being swept under the carpet. “There’s a risk that we could end up spotlighting water-intensive products that are being sourced from water scarce areas, but we need to deal with that. We’re not doing this so we can strike products off a list, but so we can get a better picture of where the risks are in our [work] and the construction industry more widely, and what we can do about them.”

    Eventually Ceeney would like to have a database where companies can compare products. “It won’t be possible to [do a direct comparison] of every product”, she admits, “but at least we’ll be able to see the emerging patterns in the supply chains and where the risks are. For instance, do we bring dry or wet product to a site, and how does that affect the other impacts like carbon?”

    In the eight years since Professor Hoekstra introduced the concept of water footprinting, the science has come a long way. Corporate attitudes towards water scarcity have changed over that time, too, with some businesses already facing risks. However, the marriage of scientific advancement and business requirement can be a complex one – and nowhere is this more apparent than for water footprinting.

    The organisation charged with ‘counselling’ that relationship is the Water Footprint Network, a collaboration of businesses and scientists. It’s just published a manual which, says Executive Director Ruth Mathews, should help companies understand in more detail what their water use is, and guide them to take the most significant steps towards good water stewardship.

    The likes of SABMiller, PepsiCo and Unilever are already on the journey, while others, like Balfour, are just setting out. Many more will be keeping a close eye on water footprinting going forward, says Stuart Orr, Freshwater Manager at WWF International. “We will all need to do a better job of accounting for our water. To set targets and benchmarks, to show best practice, to anticipate consumer trends, to answer investor questions and to adhere to regulatory frameworks and laws. In all these cases a water footprint is relevant.”

    Plastic less drastic

    One company’s journey to put footprints into practice

    It’s the food and drink businesses that have led the way on water footprinting – indeed the methodology is very much biased towards the sector. Now, others are catching the wave.

    Swedish plastics manufacturer Borealis is one. It’s recognised that the footprint of the materials it’s developed in water and sewage pipe systems is considerable. About 17 million m3 a year, to be precise.

    It isn’t the most water-intensive operation in the world, but Borealis knew that water was becoming a hot topic and felt there was sufficient need to look at any risks. “If we build a plant it’ll be there for 30 years, so we want to know that in 30 years’ time we’ll still be able to run operations from that plant,” explains European Affairs Director, Sylvain Lhôte. “We’d identified water as an issue some time ago, and we’d been following the progress with water footprinting, so we wondered: ‘Could it work for us?’ Could it help us fill some of the gaps we had in the knowledge of our operations and our supply chain?”

    So, in 2008, Borealis offered itself up as a “happy guinea pig” to the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden (KTH) for an experiment that would result in the first ever water footprint assessment of plastics. Using Water Footprint Network guidelines, they embarked on a detailed pilot study of the most prosaic of products: a polyethylene crosslinked (PEX) pipe plumbing system for a 100m2 apartment. It’s hardly stuff to set the heart racing, but it helped Borealis and KTH sort through various methodological challenges and data gaps, and distinguish between direct and indirect impacts.

    “We found our direct water footprint to be quite low – ranging from 1.2 to 6.5 litres of fresh water per kilo of finished product,” says Lhôte. “But the indirect footprint originating from feedstock can triple the figure. So we’re looking at about 4m3/tonne of finished product (or 17 million m3 a year in all). But that doesn’t tell us much at all – now we need to relate the data to the local level.”

    That’s the complicated bit. Borealis has now drawn up a range of guidelines looking at water availability, quality, risk, flow and discharge at seven of its manufacturing sites. Later this year, it should be in a position to define what the sustainable management of water might look like for the company, site by site. And that’s the level at which it has to operate, if the exercise is to have any meaning. “Unlike the case of carbon emissions, we can’t just give every plant a set figure and tell them to cut water by that amount.”

    The company is already taking action on some of the findings. On one Belgian site, for instance, where water stress has been identified, a drainage water recovery project is helping to reduce groundwater use by 30%. Other applications are sure to follow. It’s also still relatively early days for water footprinting as such, though, and Lhôte cautions that there is a long way to go before it proves as powerful in practice as it does in theory.

    David Burrows is a freelance writer.