By Katy Lackey, Director of Climate Action, US Water Alliance

March 22, 2022

Conversations on climate action are evolving to include water as part of the solution to our rapidly changing environment. Climate stresses are often felt as water stresses; from more droughts and fires to sea level rise and increasingly severe flooding from hurricanes and storm surges. For decades, the water sector has developed and implemented innovative strategies to better manage these impacts, adapt to our changing climate, and foster utility and community resilience. With the water sector increasingly hit by billion-dollar disasters and serving communities facing compounding climate impacts, many water professionals want to do more.

In the current financial context, many believe the more the water sector does for climate mitigation, the less it has to manage the impacts. “Adaptation remains critical for the water sector, but we also must contend with an understanding that climate mitigation is an adaptation strategy,” Alan Cohn, Managing Director for Integrated Water at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) and Staff Vice Chair of the Water Utility Climate Alliance, or WUCA, explains.

The good news is that the momentum for water’s role in climate mitigation is growing. Global partnerships between WaterUK, the International Water Association, and others are advancing water solutions within the Race to Zero—a global campaign to halve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, and ultimately reach Net Zero emissions by 2050. In late 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, the Stockholm International Water Institute, and others hosted Water’s Race to Zero Dialogues, resulting in nine key lessons on how the water sector can step up on climate-centered initiatives. In 2021, the Marrakech Partnership of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released a Climate Action Pathway for Water, and last November, the first-ever Water and Climate Pavilion made its way to COP-26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Water utilities around the world are also beginning to set Net Zero emission targets, and some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark are even setting sector-wide goals.
Here in the United States, One Water leaders are beginning to ask: how can we be part of the climate solution? Our new report, Water’s Net Zero Plus: A Call to Action for Climate Mitigation, offers insights and a shared vision for the US water sector to reduce GHG emissions to Net Zero by 2050 plus the cultural transformation necessary to get us there.
Net Zero Plus was developed through extensive collaboration with the Imagination Team, which includes representatives from over 35 water associations, utilities, academia, consulting firms, environmental organizations, equity leaders, rising One Water professionals, science advocacy organizations, and artists and cultural leaders working at the intersection of water, climate, and justice. The team was guided through a series of facilitated water dialogues, utility meetings, and an international symposium to better understand water’s role in climate mitigation and chart a sector-wide approach to GHG reductions. The Alliance partnered with five organizations—Black & Veatch; Empowering a Green Environment and Economy, LLC; PolicyLink; Stantec; and Xylem—to establish the team, as well as design and facilitate the process.
“Making the right decisions today will go a long way toward achieving Net Zero emissions and a healthier planet for the future. To get there, we must pursue innovation and embrace collaboration while maintaining our core mission to protect public health and the environment,” noted David LaFrance, CEO of American Water Works Association, a participating member of the Imagination Team.
The collaborative process and the varied perspectives involved in creating Net Zero Plus were transformational and reflect a true One Water solution to the climate crisis. Net Zero Plus offers hope for the future—not only what we can achieve by 2050, but how we can create a culture in the US water sector where pursuit of decarbonization doesn’t come at the cost of water equity and climate justice.
The report details seven elements to get the water sector ALIGNED toward this future:
  1. Act now
  2. Lead from the heart
  3. Invest for all people and the planet
  4. Give respect and room for different knowledge and value systems as necessary partners
  5. Negate fossil fuels and process emissions
  6. Embrace watershed and water cycle thinking
  7. Deliver water equity and environmental justice
Are you aligned for 2050? Visit the Alliance’s Net Zero Plus webpage for ways to engage, including organizations’ commitments to action and water leaders’ hopes for the future.
Water’s Net Zero Plus: A Call to Action for Climate Mitigation is the first in a series of publications emerging from the US Water Alliance’s Imagination Challenge, which is part of the organization’s two-year Recovering Stronger initiative. Recovering Stronger is driving local, state, and federal innovations to turn the disruption from COVID-19 into a source of lasting transformation in how we view, value, and manage our nation’s water systems.