Reflections from my time at COP27: Are we letting the demands of adaptation distract us from the main game?

By Rod Naylor, Global Water Lead at GHD

For the first time in my career, I had the opportunity to present within the Water Pavilion during COP27 in Egypt this year. It was a genuine privilege to participate in such an important event in the context of our collective ambition to tackle climate change. I had the opportunity to explore potential solutions with a diverse range of stakeholders in this challenge, but I was also left wondering if we are focusing our efforts to bring water into the debate on the right mix of adaptation and mitigation measures. Here are my reflections.

The water-adaptation story

Drawing on the findings of GHD’s report, Aquanomics: The economics of water risk, I contributed to discussions on mobilising finance and leveraging socio-technical solutions to address water risk and resilience in different contexts. As floods, droughts and storms happen more frequently and with greater intensity, Aquanomics revealed that the impact of water risk could wipe $5.6 trillion USD from GDP across seven key markets by 2050. In the lead-up to COP27 this year, the devastating reality of these climatic events on communities became acutely clear. From the destructive floods in Pakistan to the drying up of the River Rhine in Europe, global nations have been impacted by increasing water risk.

Looking back on these events, it was appropriate that the Egyptian presidency shifted the focus of negotiations at this year’s climate summit to ‘Loss & Damage‘. Discussions relating to the disproportionate harm that climate change will cause to developing countries centred firmly on the role of adaptation to lessen these inevitable and devastating impacts.

Probably the greatest hurdle to clear here is money. The protracted negations are fraught because of the question of who will pay and there is not enough financial commitment to meet the challenge right now. The discussion is therefore moving to ways to approach the problem. In addition to national governments’ funding pledges, we are increasingly realising that private investment is needed however, until we have transitioned, making such investments carries substantial risk.

In response, new approaches to blended finance and innovative insurance are emerging and some major corporates are finding the courage to attempt new business models. The rise in ESG policies is encouraging, as is corporate debate on the inclusion of purpose into private sector governance, and the true connectedness of stakeholder welfare with shareholders’ long-term interests. Looking forward to COP28 and beyond, I believe we will need just as much innovation, commitment and courage to resolve this existential issue as we already aspire to, and hope for, in relation to technical solutions.

Since returning home to Sydney, I have been reflecting on the impact of adaptation as an increasingly dominant theme and its implications for the water industry. Water and adaptation are inextricably linked; the implications of climate change will be acutely experienced through water – whether too much or too little. In essence, water is to the adaptation challenge what carbon emissions are to mitigation goals. In both directions water is the heart of the impacts experienced, and the actions we can take to respond. If the water industry focus stays primarily on adaptation however, we risk failing on our full responsibility – and potential – to support our communities through decarbonisation as well.

A word of caution

As the events of this year have demonstrated, the global community must build resilience against the damage that is already being done and future climate shocks which are now unavoidable. The UN Environment Programme has stated that there is no longer a credible pathway to 1.5C, the legally binding promise made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. To me, this news comes as a cautionary message against a sole focus on adaptation and the reason why we, the water industry, must also remain committed to mitigation efforts. This means strengthening our commitment to reducing emissions and proactively ensuring water does not become a constraint on crucial mitigation efforts – such as green hydrogen production. After all, the strides we take today to mitigate the effects of climate change will have a very real impact on our response to adaptation and resilience in the future.

During the conference, I spoke with representatives from across the private sector, government, industry bodies and civil society organisations. For me, these conversations reaffirmed how dynamic and disparate water challenges are across the globe. As water risk and the lived impacts increase, citizens and consumers in advanced economies will expect – and demand – more from their governments and infrastructure. In these contexts, the water sector must sustainably manage water, build infrastructure resilience and prepare communities for the rise in associated costs. For remote communities and emerging economies, efforts will need to align more closely with the access and enablement themes underpinning SDG 6, such as ensuring access to clean water and sanitation. In every geography – developed and developing countries alike – any emphasis on adaptation must also be underpinned by the pressing need to sustain mitigation ambitions.

The role of smart water

In this rapidly changing world, it’s our responsibility to help our communities pre-empt and prepare for what’s next. We must adapt to evolving risk, optimise asset performance and prioritise regenerative, circular and nature-based solutions. We must also be better prepared to manage through and minimise impacts when events increasingly will occur.

Smart water technologies are also crucial to this industry-wide transformation and our ability to adapt and respond. Using advanced digital approaches and data-driven solutions, we can optimise the performance of existing infrastructure to reduce emissions. Future-focused digital solutions can support the design and operations of water infrastructure to improve operational efficiencies, achieving broader environmental outcomes and saving time and money. For instance, digital twin software can support adaptation efforts by measuring the impact of drought and flooding on water treatment plants. In addition, better instrumentation technologies and automation can help detect and predict events to allow communities, businesses and individuals to better respond.

Looking ahead

As the world’s appetite for green hydrogen, pumped hydro energy storage and CCUS grows, so too does the supply and processing of minerals required for renewable energy technologies. This means water must be increasingly leveraged as an enabler of – not a handbrake on – the transition to a net zero future. The same water resources that are needed to deliver a carbon transformation of our economies are also needed to support our nutrition, make livable our cities and towns, and sustain our environment and biosphere. Just as there is not yet enough money to address the problem, there simply is not enough water to do all these things without change. Our industry must consider how our communities and economies can adapt and respond to climate change as well as the demands placed on our water systems.

As we look ahead to COP28 in Dubai, it is timely to consider our aspirations for the year ahead. As an industry, we can choose to be bold – to lead mitigation efforts and facilitate opportunities for emerging, low, and no-carbon solutions to take centre stage. This is a critical moment for the industry to re-focus the world’s decision makers on water’s role in adaptation while strengthening our commitment to mitigation. The Smart Water Community could not be better placed to underpin both these efforts.

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