5 minute read 11 Aug 2022
Arial view of road over river

How Ireland can improve water usage, reduce hidden carbon footprint

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.

Contributors
Niamh Delanty
5 minute read 11 Aug 2022

There are emissions associated with treatment and distribution before water reaches our homes. One needs to be mindful of that.

In brief
  • There is a need to find ways to manage and mitigate against wasting water, which is a precious resource.
  • Our water and wastewater systems and the energy requirements to drive them could account for as much as 5% of our total carbon footprint.
  • Behavioural changes in use of water, however small, add up to be real, tangible benefits for the environment and society.

Our water infrastructure system is amazing! In our daily lives we are using upwards of 133 litres of water¹. This consumption is facilitated by significant hidden infrastructure that takes fresh water to treatment facilities, then pressurises and pipes that clean water to our homes and businesses. All the water that comes to our homes and businesses is the same, used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing without distinction.

However, these processes and this infrastructure have a significant hidden CO2 footprint, driven by the energy required to make it all work. Some observers have noted that our water and wastewater systems and the energy requirements to drive them could account for as much as 5% of our total carbon footprint (more than 3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent). And this may be conservative. Northern Ireland Water is the second-largest energy user in the North, while Irish Water is a significant energy user also. So yes, before you boil it in the kettle, or heat it with the immersion or electric shower – our water already has a significant carbon footprint attached to it - even a cold shower.

With this in mind, we must be mindful around our own water consumption - how much more are we wasting through our own behaviours? Is there scope to further improve? What would happen if we stopped “running the tap” for example?

Perhaps the most illuminating in this regard, is what happened in Dublin between September and October of 2014. In that time, as households anticipated the introduction of water charges, domestic consumption reduced by almost 5%, or 20 million litres². This is enough to satisfy the domestic water needs of well over 10,000 people for two weeks. It highlights starkly that when faced with paying the true cost of this precious resource, we found ways to save.

Our consumption of water has a significant GHG emissions footprint, but the nature of the supply chain means that it's not obvious to the end user how it all adds up. There are emissions associated with treatment and distribution before water reaches our homes. Our consumption of water frequently involves heating it in a kettle, shower or washing machine; and treatment of wastewater also uses significant amounts of energy. I think that reframing how we think about domestic water usage will nudge us all towards more efficient use of this valuable resource
Tomás Murray
EY Government & Infrastructure

Clearly, when faced with the real cost of water – in monetary terms – consumers are willing and able to adjust their habits. And these behavioural changes, however small, add up to be real, tangible benefits for the environment and society. In the absence of water charges and metres, our domestic water use in Ireland is somewhat unknown and underappreciated. To complicate matters, the past two years have necessitated an abundance of running water for hand washing as the world’s attention shifted from one public health crisis (climate change) to another (COVID-19). We also spent more time at home, watering plants that probably didn’t need it, and washing cars, windows etc., that equally didn’t need it.

Coming off the hottest days on record during the summer of 2022, the criticality of our water infrastructure and resource is clear. It is not an infinite resource – it is limited. We must find ways to manage and mitigate against wasting it. There is huge scope for climate change mitigation in the way we use water at home. It can be as simple as filling the kettle up with one cup of water when only making one cup of tea. Or it might be washing your car with a bucket and sponge rather than a hose.

It might surprise us how little comfort we forgo to make a real difference.

Summary

Water is a limited resource and there is an imminent need to be mindful around our water consumption behaviour. There is huge scope for climate change mitigation in the way we use water at home.

About this article

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.

Contributors
Niamh Delanty