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Scottish Water’s climate pollution likely to be rising, expert warns

New data which appears to show Scottish Water’s carbon emissions increased in 2021-22 is proof the body faces “major challenges” in meeting its climate targets, an industry expert has told The Ferret. 

Peter Peacock — a former Labour minister and chair of the Customer Forum for Water in Scotland — blamed the apparent rise in Scottish Water’s emissions on the body’s growing investment in high-polluting projects to upgrade water and sewage systems. 

He said this spending programme — which has been pushed by the body’s economic regulator, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland —  is “intergenerationally unfair” because it would result in more emissions being pumped into the atmosphere while “leaving our children to deal with consequences”.

But Scottish Water said it “strongly refutes” the suggestion that its performance on emissions reductions is in doubt. The organisation argued it has halved the pollution from its direct business operations since 2006-07.

The body pointed out that it is the first water company in the UK to report the carbon footprint of its infrastructure investments. Scottish Water claimed that bringing these emissions into its climate reporting “does not mean emissions are growing” and instead would help its supply chain partners “reduce carbon in the work they do”.

The climate crisis is the biggest threat we face. All of us have a role to play in cutting our carbon emissions, and that applies to all public bodies, including Scottish Water.

Ariane Burgess, Scottish Greens MSP

Peacock’s comments came after Scottish Water revealed in June for the first time the climate impacts of the work it does with supply chain partners to replace or refurbish treatment works, water mains, sewers and networks. 

These investments — as well as Scottish Water’s own business operations — produced the equivalent of up to 472,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2021-22, The Ferret has calculated. 

Scottish Water did not report emissions from investments in 2020-21, meaning a direct comparison between the two years is not possible. 

However, given that an extra £176m was spent on infrastructure upgrades in 2021-22 it is likely that combined emissions from operations and investments grew last year. 

The figures were taken from Scottish Water’s latest annual report, published in June. It has set a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2040, five years ahead of the rest of the country’s economy. 

Scottish Water’s own operations produced the equivalent of 233,00 tonnes of CO2 last year, a reduction of 16,000 tonnes from 2020-21. This fall was caused by a decrease in emissions from electricity usage, which is largely a result of a growth in clean energy production.

This reduction seems to have been offset by the apparent increase in emissions from investments. 

The report does not give an exact figure for these emissions, but notes that the equivalent of between 200 and 300 tonnes of CO2 are produced for every million pounds Scottish Water spends.

This means that — given there was an extra £176m spent in 2021-22 — between 35,200 and 52,800 more tonnes of CO2 are estimated to have been produced from investments last year compared with 2020-21.  

The body will continue to spend large sums of money over the next five years.  A total of £4.5bn is slated to be spent on replacing older water and sewage assets between 2021 and 2027. 

Although they currently produce a lot of climate pollution, these investments have their own environmental benefits. 

For example, The Ferret reported last year that leaks from Scottish Water’s sewage systems were “unacceptably high” with 10,892 reported in 2021. Investment in new and refurbished infrastructure is one of the ways that Scottish Water has said it will improve this situation. 

If you’d like to read more of The Ferret’s coverage of pollution and Environmental issues, click here.

According to Peter Peacock, however, these infrastructure upgrades need to be balanced with the urgent need to tackle climate change. He said investment at the level currently planned means there is “no way Scottish Water will be able to reduce its emissions” within the next decade, which are viewed as crucial in the battle against the climate crisis. 

“Having been closely involved in examining capital spending over many years it is clear to me that you cannot just spend your way out of the climate emergency,” Peacock said.

“More imaginative approaches and tough decisions are now needed to balance the equation between infrastructure spending and emissions.

“The current regulatory strategy is unsustainable and likely to push-up Scottish Water’s emissions during the next decade. Any such strategy is of course intergenerationally unfair in depositing more carbon in the atmosphere and leaving our children to live with the consequences.”

Scottish Greens MSP, Ariane Burgess, noted that while the upgrades to infrastructure are “obviously important” any growth in emissions associated with them was “definitely a concern”.

Burgess said: “The climate crisis is the biggest threat we face. All of us have a role to play in cutting our carbon emissions, and that applies to all public bodies, including Scottish Water.

“Scottish Water needs to ensure that it is doing everything in as sustainable and environmentally friendly a way as possible. We need to have a water system that works for people and the planet.”

A Scottish Water spokesperson said the company recognises the “climate imperative” to reduce emissions from the supply chain that delivers its investment programme. It added that it was “a good thing” that it is now reporting the carbon intensity of these investments. 

The spokesperson said: “We strongly refute any suggestion that our performance (currently or historically) on this is in doubt. We are independently scrutinised and audited on our performance – including via an expert net zero emissions panel who provide advice and challenge us.

“There is already good progress being made in reducing the carbon intensity of investment and our supply chain partners have responded well to the challenge of finding ways to take carbon out of their products and services.

“We are the only water company in the UK at present that is applying its net zero ambition to embodied materials in the capital programme. 

“Bringing investment emissions into the scope of net zero does not mean emissions are growing, but that we are simply increasing the scope of our net zero challenge to include emissions that are traditionally ‘owned’ by our supply chain as we seek to support low emission construction.”

A spokesperson for the Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS) said: “The water industry, like many other infrastructure intensive industries, will have to think differently about the way it provides services if it is to meet net zero by 2040. The need to replace ageing infrastructure in a low carbon way is why we have changed our regulatory framework.

 “Scottish Water now has the flexibility to plan and prioritise its investment in a way that is economically optimal and considers both financial costs and carbon. WICS also added into its determination of charges an allowance to encourage the adoption of lowest carbon investment options even if they come at a cost premium.”

Scottish Water Response in Full

Photo credit: iStock/aquatarkus

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