UK recipe for a watery carbon crunch?

After 2 years of increasing disillusionment travelling the UK to share our barriers to innovation research findings, this week I gave what I really hope will be my last presentation on the topic. I feel like I’ve stressed the issues as much as I can without losing my sanity or simply repeating myself ad nauseam.

Anyway, I’d kindly been invited to give a keynote at an IChemE seminar hosted by United Utilities. It was about the role of water and wastewater technologies to mitigate the ‘carbon crunch’. As per usual it turned out to deliver some optimism but lots of frustration in equal measure.

Certainly it was heartening to see apparently novel process engineering and real-time control to reduce energy use, chemical use and thereby carbon footprints. But it was frustrating not to be able to get past my feeling that such things should already be standard, mainstream practices and not isolated pilots and one-offs. Besides, even by the admission of several of the seminar’s participants themselves, most of these systems were not truly novel. People recalled seeing precursors or equivalents from the 1970s onwards. Once again questions kept popping into my mind: What exactly has the England and Wales water industry been doing for the 20 years since privatisation? And surely these kinds of best practices have been commonplace for decades in others sectors?

For my part I tried to at least present a broader picture than currently found in the industry’s approach to innovation or sustainability to meet carbon targets. We’ve previously called for greater clarity in their use of the term ‘innovation’ and even suggested John Bessant and Joe Tidd’s 4Ps of innovation as a good starting point (namely separating product, process, position, and paradigm innovations). This was in our Cave Review submission last year. Such clarity is sorely needed. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard water people rushing to the sector’s defence sector by citing various ‘innovations’ since privatisation. Most wouldn’t stand up under even superficial scrutiny as anything more than conventional business change. It’s also worth noting, once again as we’ve stressed already at many events, that Ofgem seems to have a much better handle on sector-specific criteria and definitions by producing its Innovation Good Practice Guide.

At the event I also hoped to offer some clarity about sustainability. Building on Susan Baker’s ‘ladder of sustainable development’ it’s fairly easy to show that bodies like Water UK, Ofwat or even the EU are only actually working within ‘weak’ sustainable development. ‘Strong’ and ‘ideal’ sustainable development exist as rungs above this one and would bring superior social and environmental benefits. (Incidentally ‘strong’ sustainable development is from Brundtland’s famous definition for those of you interested in the details). A further rung above, I believe, comes from John Ehrenfeld’s concept of ‘sustainability’. This deliberately tries to eject the baggage of several centuries of Western notions about what ‘development’ should be in the first place. Ehrenfeld’s caution about phraseology is also priceless when trying to separate the wheat from the chaff at sustainability-related events. He warns that whenever you see ‘sustainable X’ ( ‘X’ can be ‘development’, ‘business’, ‘buildings’ etc.) you’re always more likely to be dealing with the ‘X’ part than the sustainability part. Such academic subtleties and distinctions may seem abstract but they are useful. They allow us to realise there are superior ways to approach this problem than those currently being developed or tried within the UK water sector.

So how do I think the UK water sector’s future is going to pan out? Well, let’s take a look back at the recipe followed so far. We began with a fairly well integrated, research active (but heavily under funded) public water sector. We privatised it (at Thatcher Mark 1, no pun intended!) to be a slow cooking cash cow that would be tasty to more private interests. We’ve left it to simmer for 20 years with only an occasional sprinkling of incremental innovation. Now we’re stirring in a tiny pinch of weak sustainable development and hoping for a wholesome low carbon result. Well, from what I heard from others at the IChemE event I’ve at least realised one thing. I won’t be the only one surprised that this supposed low carbon recipe is instead going to produce a rather less tasty and altogether less satisfying, watery carbon crunch!

Update (16/11/2016): Featured image added from this source.

Duncan Thomas

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