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The Carbon Footprint of Water

The carbon footprint of water is a modern way to talk about reducing water and energy and to create new environmental services. But there are some nuances in how you look at things which are important in making air and water cleaner. There is a major movement sweeping across corporate America, cities and states to de-carbonize. It’s for good reason based on what science is telling us. This is a perfect time to catalyze a new phase of growth for your environmental water business.

A carbon footprint is the total green house gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, group, event, or product (Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan). The key measure is carbon emitted to the air as carbon dioxide (CO2) which is commonly in metric tons.

Giffiths-Sattenspiel and Wilson (The Carbon Footprint of Water 2009) estimate water lost in the U.S. due to leaks equals about 2.28 metric tons of CO2 per million gallons of water. Here is an example for a cooling water treatment system (make sure you get valid local numbers for local carbon footprint work).

Cooling Water Example
If a cooling water treatment system saved 2 million gallons of water each year, how many metric tons of CO2 emissions would be eliminated?

2.28 metric tons CO2 X 2 million gallons = 4.56 metric tons of CO2 emissions eliminated.

The problem of excess carbon

High carbon levels in the air are harming the way we live – more floods, droughts, extreme weather, etc. I learned about this in the early 1990’s as a grad student in “Global Environmental Policy,” taught by Professor William Moomaw, Tufts University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Here is a short piece of the science.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California San Diego began to monitor CO2 in the sky in 1956. Below is their data up to May 5, 2020, referred to as the Keeling Curve.

carbon chart

The Scripps CO2 Program is led by UCSD Professor Ralph Keeling, son of the late Keeling Curve creator Charles David Keeling who founded the program in 1956. Dr. Keeling puts it like this.

“Prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels had fluctuated over the millennia but had never exceeded 300 ppm at any point in the last 800,000 years. In 2013 CO2 levels exceeded 400 ppm in the air for the first time in human history. We keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide keeps building up in the air. It’s essentially as simple as that.”

Why is less carbon good for water business?

1. Strengthen the case for water and energy savings projects

By adding the reduction of CO2 emissions in your water and energy savings, you will strengthen the business case for your proposals. You may also get free brand exposure from your client’s low- or no-carbon success stories.

2. Enhance relationships with corporate buyers

As of March 2019, 101 major corporations have committed to reduce carbon emissions such as Cargill, Land O Lakes, Coca-Cola, Ford, and Hyatt to name a few (Forbes). Helping clients reduce carbon emissions is a great way to enhance corporate relations.

3. Attract and energize youth

Climate and environment are of top importance to our youth. They will be energized and attracted to a low/no-carbon initiative by a water company.

4. It’s what people expect of water leaders

Everyone wins – business, employees, communities, and future generations.


Something to think about:

  • What clients or prospects have a sustainability initiative?
  • Do they have a CO2 or carbon reduction target?
  • Who is the director of sustainability?
  • What does he/she care about?
  • How can you solve their problems?
  • Talk to young people. Get their perspectives.

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