Navigating to net zero

30 Nov 2021

As Water went to print, COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference was nearing its close. Many believe this summit for world leaders may be the last chance of agreeing on targets to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees and avert climate catastrophe.

It is an enormous goal, and so it’s worth taking the time to remind ourselves what is at stake. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group, ‘Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis’, released last September, was described by UN secretary-general António Guterres as a “code red for humanity”.

According to the report, scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system.

Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion – such as continued sea level rise – are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

“We are already at 1.2 degrees and rising,” he says in his statement. “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

However the IPCC has also shown the difference that strong and sustained reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases would limit climate change.

To achieve the ambitious goal of limiting global temperature rises the world needs to halve emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

It is not a goal that will be achieved by state actors alone. Nigel Topping, a business leader working with the UN, has been driving the push to get business onboard with the global commitments. In his words “States and non-state actors alike are galvanizing behind the guiding star of net zero emissions before 2050, but we are running out of time. We must urgently pivot to delivering the halving of our emissions by 2030, with robust short-term plans and longer-term strategies.”

As a platform to unite global actors, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has established a Race to Zero platform. It outlines pathways for decarbonisation, including water, and outlines the vision for the future.

It is 2050 and the global water sector is entirely sustainable thanks to a suite of ambitious policies and large-scale investments. Novel circular approaches to water use – and reuse – are especially influential because of their ability to capture embedded energy in today’s water management systems that was previously lost. This energy is all emissions-free and is helping make the water sector not just net zero but net positive.

With radical changes to the way we manage water being discussed, and a mooted investment need of up to $180 billion, New Zealand now finds itself at a critical juncture.

To date, business as usual investment and operations of our assets have focused little on their carbon impacts. A major pivot is needed if the goals of emissions reduction and the need to address our ailing infrastructure are to be reconciled.

To begin us on a journey to understanding and reducing our emissions, the Water New Zealand Climate Group has developed ‘Navigating to Net Zero: Aotearoa’s water sector low-carbon journey’.

The document, to be launched in late November, has been developed to help guide water service providers on the journey to a low-carbon future. This document provides a starting point, and sets out how the water industry can plan to reduce carbon emissions to achieve a net zero target.

The development of the document was informed by the hive mind of the water sector, with knowledge and case studies collated through a series of workshops at the 2020 Water New Zealand conference and 2021 Climate Symposium.

These learnings served the basis for the development of the document, led by Jon Reed of Beca who co-authored the document with Climate Group members Chris Thurston of Watercare, Nick Dempsey of Mott MacDonald, Catherine Taiapa of Armatec, Geoff Bennett of Carbon EMS, Rita Whitfield of Stantec, Fraser Clark of Wellington Water, as well as myself.

The document provides a framework for taking action in our business, and case studies of work underway. It looks at the organisational drivers, as well as emission reduction opportunities that exist within the water sector, ranging from fuel switching, process optimisations, renewable energy generation and water demand management.

While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormous global challenges coming our way, for us in the water sector, there are also real opportunities at local level to contribute to making a difference. While Navigating to net-zero in the water sector may not be front and centre of discussion in Glasgow, it needs to be an important component of any future planning and thinking here.

Navigating to Net Zero will be launched on 3 December. Go to for more information.

This article is from the November/December 2021 issue of Water