Fernando Fischmann

Tackling Water Sustainability Is Tough For Corporations, But Here’s How It Can Be Done

16 December, 2021 / Articles

Over the past decade corporations have stepped up in unprecedented ways as stewards of water. But to date they’ve primarily taken a “within-the-four-walls” approach, prioritizing typical corporate responsibility outreach and internal efficiency gains rather than on sustainability initiatives that could move the needle across a whole river basin — setting the foundation for long-term business profitability as well as the environment. Yes, there’s a lot of discussion in corporate sustainability circles about taking on these basin-level sustainability challenges. But to date only a handful of companies have accepted the challenge. 

Let’s be clear, however: It’s not that corporations don’t care about prioritizing more holistic approaches to water sustainability. It’s that they haven’t yet had access to the science to help them set the right targets. In addition, the way we’ve used science to inform sustainability target setting for other goals (such as carbon) doesn’t work well for water. For water, we need to model, frame and employ science in often very different and much more challenging ways.

As part of the Science-Based Targets Network (SBTN), a group of experts from more than 45 non-governmental organizations, business associations and consultancies that are collectively defining science-based targets (SBTs) for sustainability, I’m currently helping develop these targets for water. And I’m seeing first-hand the high bar target-setting for water requires compared to other SBTs like carbon. 

Carbon Versus Water Corporate Targets: Models, Local Impacts, and Stakeholdering Finesse

Carbon has the reputation of being the thorniest sustainability challenge. But water is even harder because of four main factors complicating target-setting: the state of the scientific models, water’s local impacts, the often difficult stakeholdering around water, and the massive technical expertise water targeting requires.

Carbon has a well-known set of scientific models published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations’ body for assessing the science related to climate change) that provide the framework for the science applied to targets. That means nobody has to decide which model to use for carbon. Carbon also has a portfolio of integrated models and a set of agreed-upon scenarios. With water, on the other hand, the models and scenarios currently have to be customized anew for each company in each watershed — drastically reducing scientific efficiencies.

Water also differs from carbon because its impacts are local, not global. All carbon is bad, and all carbon emissions are shared globally—your carbon impact in one place can be integrated across your enterprise pretty easily. But because water is local, we can’t do that kind of integration. Water impacts have to be dealt with where they’re happening, without the option of offsets.

And that local nature makes the process for stakeholdering with water much more complicated than that for carbon. Because water is local, stakeholdering requires finesse that isn’t required in other realms. To get the targets to mean something in the context of an entire watershed, you have to factor in a host of local variables — culture and religion, for example, as well as the capacity and functionality and potential corruption of local agencies.

A company also often will have to leverage its partnerships in a basin to get collective action among all basin water users in order to hit the target. And the company has to decide if it’s worth it — should it just go for low-hanging fruit on its own, or should it push for harder, collective wins that impact the entire basin? That doesn’t happen with carbon.

Corporations might be big enough to persuade governments to play into this leverage. In Pakistan, for instance, textile companies are a key part of the national economy, so they have leverage to work with government to get things done. These companies could pilot innovative new solutions to Pakistan’s water problem — say, on recharge — because the government would partner with them to actively promote the solutions.

If my company has a small footprint, for instance, but my basin needs a lot of work, how do I make that happen? Perhaps the best way is to bring other companies to the table that get you closer to the objective. These private-to-private conversations are often much easier than the private-to-public.

Corporations Ask: Where’s the Technical Expertise Coming From?

The goal of our SBTN work is to have a methodology that we could hand off to any company for implementation. But we have to admit: Some companies will be able to implement, but by and large most won’t.

This is the final difference between carbon and water: Doing fully calibrated physically based models to create scenarios of better futures requires technical expertise that is sometimes far outside the company’s sphere of normal activity. We need to make this process and this capability accessible to companies that a) don’t have the capability now, and so b) may not be able to afford consultants forever to get their work done.

Science is done by scientists, not by magic algorithms. But producing customized science for every company in every watershed is prohibitively expensive. Ideally, we can get the process down to a cost point where corporations could invest in several basins per year. Or come up with a much-easier-to-deploy technical tool — a machine-learning emulation of models. (I will be writing about this emulation in future posts.)   

We also have to recognize that targets without time won’t work. While a company’s people doing water sustainability projects on the ground are measured annually on their success, some of the strategies we’re producing in the SBTN Water Hub will take much longer than a year to unfold. To execute a fully scientifically driven vision takes time. 

There are ways to achieve that vision that could still meet the annual KPI model — you look at your enterprise and you set a five-year set of goals, with several basins in each year. But to get where we need to go with corporate water sustainability, we need more than targets. We need a mechanism and funding for the sustainability teams and their companies to set longer-term visions and chart the path to achieving those visions, so that the companies aren’t just attacking low-hanging fruit that doesn’t add up to impact.

Yes, Corporations Will Embrace Water Sustainability Target-Setting

Despite the challenges, we should remain optimistic that corporations will embrace sustainability target-setting for water. The ultimate goal of the SBTI process is to codify a standardized approach that would include tiers of engagement with science. For the entry-level company, the tier of engagement might be applying a global model or a local model that’s already available. For companies with more experience as water sustainability stewards, the engagement tier could involve building new but standard models that more robustly point to future strategies for improving the way aquatic ecosystems function for humans and nature. This process will take more time, but the results on the ground will be more material.



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