Carbon neutrality and water: Do they mix?

It is always tempting to use a simple term to explain a complex issue.

Carbon neutral strategies are relatively common. It's a fairly simple concept that easily can be communicated to sustainability practitioners and to the layman. A company measures the carbon footprint for its operations (and may include its supply chain emissions) and then sets a goal of achieving carbon neutrality.

This goal is achieved through a number of actions which may include energy efficiency, use of renewables or buying offsets. The strategy is relatively easy to communicate and quantify progress towards the goal.

The concept of neutrality works well for carbon because carbon is fungible. A ton of carbon in the U.S. is the same as it is in China. If I am a global company with a carbon neutrality goal, I can achieve carbon neutrality by reducing carbon anywhere in the world with a playbook of tactics that will work in a wide range of locations.

There are two major advantages of a carbon neutrality goal: It's easy to communicate, and the nature of carbon permits the strategy to work from a technical perspective.

For water, not so much.

Water is not carbon. Attributes of water are location-specific and as a result, water is not fungible. Water has many attributes, including cost, location, quality (numerous kinds), time, value and values (how people relate to water).

It is tempting for companies to establish a water neutrality goal. However, actions to reach this goal must be tailored to watershed specific conditions. A uniform set of tactics doesn't translate readily everywhere.

One strategy that has gained traction is thinking about a global water goal in terms of "replenishment." Replenish strikes a balance; although easy to communicate, it can be technically rigorous. Replenish strategies are essentially a global water balance calculation and a water balance is in line with how hydrologists think about water.

A replenish strategy also acknowledges the local nature and unique attributes of water. Water actions at the local level can include improved water efficiency, reuse, recycling, watershed conservation programs, education and awareness programs and water funds.

Companies may be inclined to model their water strategies along the lines of their carbon strategies as water moves into their sustainability agenda. They should be mindful of the unique attributes of water and, more important, that solutions need to tailored to local conditions. For example, a global water efficiency, reuse and recycling goals shouldn't be applied uniformly in every watershed. Also, how to engage stakeholders on the issue of water through collective action programs will depend upon local conditions, stakeholders values towards water and other variables.

A simple message communicating a company's water strategy is possible, but that doesn't mean we should pretend water is just like carbon. A water strategy should adhere to the unique attributes of water and not ignore the complexities of implementing a water risk mitigation strategy.

Water footprint image by pogonici via Shutterstock