Net Zero: How Global Water Leaders are Setting the Pace on Decarbonisation

In a conversation with a utility leader last year, I heard a perfect example of the ambition that gives me hope that our sector will accelerate towards net zero: “Every decision we make has to consider the future, including how we work today and how we build, operate, and power in a net-zero world. We need to build in a way that we’re proud of when we look back.”  

That leader was Chris Thurston, former head of sustainability at Watercare, Auckland, New Zealand – one of several we consulted last year on how utilities are deploying innovative strategies to accelerate decarbonisation. 

We are now well past halfway to reaching the Paris Agreement limit of a 1.5 °C temperature increase, with average global temperatures growing and future projections stark. Reducing the water sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint is essential to reduce climate change and alleviate the burden of adaptation.   

Our climate has little regard for our borders, just as water basins do not recognize the artificial boundaries that we have created as humans. No single business or utility can solve our challenges alone. To scale progress and modernise the world’s water systems to be more resilient, efficient and less carbon-intensive, we need to foster a global culture of open collaboration.  

Xylem’s 2022 paper, ‘Net Zero: The Race We All Win’, sought to codify water utility decarbonisation through a four-step roadmap. Since then, momentum has been building, with collaboration proving a powerful catalyst. Peer networks – including utilities, consultants, and technology vendors – are sharing practices and helping to scale data-driven approaches.  

To further those conversations, we went straight to the source and spoke to people such as Chris and other utility leaders on the front line of our transition to net zero. 

These perspectives are included in our new paper, Net Zero: The Race We All Win – Meet the Utilities Setting the Pace on Decarbonization.  In conversations with utility leaders from Belgium, Chile, China, Germany, New Zealand, and Scotland, we gained essential insights into the practical approaches that will push our sector towards a more sustainable, resilient, water-secure future. 

Through those discussions, it also became increasingly clear that we cannot afford to persist with an approach to climate change that prioritises individual perspectives and focuses on immediate, local concerns. The individual utilities we spoke to are not only making strides to net zero, but also breaking from a siloed approach to share what they have learned and help others drive progress.  

A time for collective action 

Without mitigation, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we will run out of ways to adapt. Innovation and investment in adaptation are vital to building resilient, efficient water infrastructure that delivers for communities and reduces the sector’s GHG (greenhouse gas) contribution – approximately 2% of global GHG emissions. 

We can change this. 

Assessments by Xylem and our partners show that water and wastewater utilities could dramatically reduce operational emissions. This could be done by reducing electricity use, increasing renewable energy generation, and measuring, and mitigating fugitive GHG, including nitrous oxide and methane, emissions using existing, high-efficiency technologies.  Many utility leaders also show aspiration in reducing their emission impact across their value chain by prioritising suppliers that share the same net zero objectives.  

Every utility is facing a unique set of challenges. The thread that runs through the utilities racing to net zero is their focus on collaboration to shape realistic roadmaps for decarbonisation, and an ambition to seize the opportunity for infrastructure modernisation. They also illustrate a systemic approach to delivering tangible, measurable progress. 

Together these utilities show that water sector GHG emissions are a solvable problem. Their experiences give us a blueprint for moving further, and faster. Net zero is not merely an ambitious goal, but a realistic evolution of how we manage water. 

Check out the upcoming IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition in Toronto, Canada (11-15 August 2024), where we will welcome around 10,000 water professionals from round the globe.

Alexis de Kerchove

Senior Director of Client Sustainability, Xylem
Alexis de Kerchove is the Senior Director of Client Sustainability at Xylem, where he helps clients improve water management, achieve sustainability goals, and address climate challenges. Specializing in water supply, sanitation, and stormwater manag... Read full biography