Water, carbon and climate change – One Big Gotcha?

Water and carbon have some obvious contrasts. Water is a more tangible product that we can see, touch and taste; our problem is a lack of it.   Carbon is a less tangible product that we cannot see, touch or taste, and our problem is that we have too much of it.

It seems counter intuitive that water is the newer issue.

But to some extent these are esoteric differences, nothing more than interesting observations. More importantly to me as a CR practitioner is that carbon is a global issue and water is a local one.

A pound of carbon has basically the same impact on climate wherever it is emitted or absorbed, whereas a liter of water may be worth its weight in gold in a place of scarcity and valueless in a place of excess. So the corporate measurement systems we have built for carbon need to be rethought.  None of us would want to see companies claiming a 35% reduction in organizational wide water use without knowing where it had been achieved.

But to make things more complicated, let’s look at the interdependencies between water and carbon.

A water cooled data center can go from being an environmental darling for its low carbon attributes to a pariah for its high water consumption. Gotcha.

According to an article from the IEEE, it takes an average of 95 liters of water to produce 1kwh of electricity (breakdown by fuel source at the same website). And according to this study by Treehugger, using the UK as an example, the water industry uses between 2 and 3% of all electricity (same as the ICT sector interestingly) to provide society’s tap water. Water needs electricity for its production and electricity needs water.  Gotcha.

Climate change exacerbates water issues, but one of the solutions for providing more drinking water in areas of scarcity is saltwater desalination.

To meet the energy needs of desalination without worsening climate change, we envisage that clean energy is used to provide the required power. But that is not the end of the trail.  There are varying estimates for what proportion of carbon sequestration comes from life in the oceans, but a quarter is a common order of magnitude.  But we are killing off that ocean life at a rapid pace in various ways. Desalination kills the life in the water and exacerbates the problems further.  Gotcha.


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