I’m often asked by climate tech investors: why should I invest in water tech when I’m committed to addressing the climate crisis? My answer is: 10% – the proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions related to managing water, according to GIZ. That’s why Decarbonization of the global water system is one of the three D's in Echo River’s investment thesis, along with efforts to Digitize and Decentralize. This blog explores water's relationship with decarbonization, or climate mitigation, which are efforts that reduce ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Decarbonization is timely, given the recent release of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report: Mitigation of Climate Change. In other blog posts, we have and will continue to cover aspects of climate adaptation and resilience, efforts to manage our lives, the environment and the economy under the duress of rising temperatures, droughts and floods. Disappointingly, while IPCC doesn't break out the contribution of emissions from managing water, the GIZ report "Stop Floating, Start Swimming" (2021) illustrates this clearly. So let's dive into water's contributions and potential actions to mitigate emissions.
Water’s contribution of 10% of global GHG emissions are estimated to include:
Energy-intensive processes for purifying, supplying, and treating water and wastewater.
Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater and fecal sludge management and discharge.
GHG emissions from surface water bodies.
Decomposition of organic material in reservoirs.
Degradation and destruction of wetlands, in particular peatlands.
Different flooding regimes for rice paddy irrigation.
(Sources: US Water Alliance 2022, GIZ 2020)
We often think only of moving, heating and treating water in the built environment, which accounts for 4% of global GHGs. In California, for example, where we have the world’s most engineered water system, water consumes 20% of electricity consumption and 30% of natural gas consumption, excluding power generation (California Energy Commission). Globally, you can see electricity consumption by region and water use category in the figure here.
What can be done to address these sources to mitigate these emissions? Some high-impact measures described in the report include those described in this illustration above..
Energy efficiency, energy recovery, optimized wastewater, demand management and water-loss reduction.
Reduce discharge of poorly and/or untreated wastewater or fecal sludge through increased treatment capacities. Reduce nutrient enrichment of surface water.
Conservation and restoration of freshwater ecosystems, such as peatlands.
Sustainable water management, land use and cultivation practices.
Thorough environmental impact assessments for infrastructure planning (e.g. careful site selection). Eutrophication control. Dam removal, or substitution of high dams for low-head hydropower systems.
Improve flooding regimes to reduce GHG emissions and water waste.
Echo River’s investments in our portfolio companies are addressing many of these mitigation challenges. Epic Cleantec is increasing and expanding wastewater treatment capacities to decentralized locations such as large towers. Gybe is tracking water quality and emissions occurring in reservoirs behind dams. Verdi Ag and AgMonitor are improving water and energy efficiency on-farm.
Technology innovation should also be paired with cultural change. “We can center water as a key pathway to address the climate crisis,” as the US Water Alliance states eloquently in their latest report Water’s Net Zero Plus: A Call to Action for Climate Mitigation.
This report details the US water sector’s vision to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, as well as seven elements of cultural transformation needed for an equitable and decarbonized water future as described in the acronym ALIGNED.
Lead from the heart
Invest for all people and the planet
Give respect and room for different knowledge and value systems as necessary partners
Negate fossil fuels and process emissions
Embrace watershed and water cycle thinking
Deliver water equity and environmental justice
I couldn’t agree more with these elements. Kudos to the US Water Alliance Imagination Team for bringing this report to life.
– Peter Yolles, General Partner, Echo River Capital