Climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It will have a significant and permanent impact on the water cycle. This in turn has serious implications for the long-term sustainability of the water and sewerage sectors in England and Wales.

We published our first climate change policy statement in 2008. This outlines how we are responding to the challenges of climate change, and the ways in which we expect the water and sewerage companies to respond. We continue to review and update our climate change policies as the scientific and political frameworks develop.

Main impacts of climate change

  • Precipitation. Changing rainfall patterns may make it harder to meet demand and could increase the risk of droughts affecting the supply of water.
  • Abstraction. Higher temperatures and less rainfall in the summer means there will be more stress on already scarce water resources when they are needed the most.
  • Treatment. More frequent heavy downpours and changes to the ecology of rivers may reduce the quality of the water we take from the environment, requiring more treatment.
  • Distribution. Key assets may be at greater risk of being flooded and changes in soil moisture levels may lead to changing patterns of pipe bursts and leaks.
  • Consumption. As the climate warms, demand for water is likely to increase from both household and non-household consumers. In some areas, there may also be increased competition for raw water resources from other sectors, especially during the summer months.
  • Drainage. Changing rainfall patterns challenge the current approach to drainage. Climate change will increase the risk of surface water flooding and sewer flooding, which is one of the most serious types of service failure. Climate change may also increase the damage caused by overflows of untreated wastewater into the environment.
  • Wastewater treatment and discharge. Reduced river flows could mean more carbon-intensive sewage treatment is required to ensure rivers are protected.

Responding to climate change

The challenges of climate change need to be addressed by the water and sewerage sectors in ways that offer value and protection to consumers both now and in the future. Approaches to climate change fall into two broad categories:

Climate change mitigation

Climate change mitigation means minimising the negative impacts of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change mitigation is a key issue for the water and sewerage sectors because they are large consumers of energy. Their operational emissions account for nearly 1% of the UK’s total. In addition, as asset intensive sectors they are responsible for significant emissions associated with construction and the manufacture of the products they use. We expect companies to understand their emissions and play their part in the UK’s effort to reduce them.

We are committed to helping to mitigate climate change through our approach to regulation. We currently monitor each company’s greenhouse gas emissions annually in line with Government guidance and we publish these figures in our service and delivery reports. This has made sure that companies properly understand their emissions, and that we can monitor their progress in a consistent way.

We continue to develop our regulatory approach to better encourage companies to reduce their emissions.

One way companies can reduce their emissions is by generating renewable energy as an integral part of providing water and sewerage services. The regulated companies now generate over 600GWh of renewable electricity per year.

In the 2009 price review we included a further £57 million for renewable energy projects. These will save the equivalent of more than half a million tonnes of CO2e each year, as well as delivering £8.8 million of operational expenditure savings for customers.

Climate change adaptation

Climate change adaptation means taking action to make sure that we can cope with the weather in the future.

The companies we regulate already deal with weather risks as a fundamental part of their business, and we already face risks to supply from droughts and floods. However, in a changing climate our existing systems and practices may not be adequate.

To adapt, the sectors must consider all of the risks of climate change over the coming decades and take action to deal with those which are significant. Actions will range from increasing the resilience of water supply networks, to understanding and planning for any incremental impacts on performance a changing climate may bring. We expect the companies to adapt in a phased, responsible and appropriate manner. This means that their adaptation plans must be based on sound science and evidence.

As the economic regulator, our role is to establish and operate a regulatory framework which encourages companies to adapt to the risks of climate change in an effective, efficient and equitable way. It is also important that we continue to hold companies to account if they fail to meet their obligations in the future.

We saw some good examples of adaptation in our last price review. In our 2009 price limits we included £414 million for network and asset resilience schemes and more than 100 catchment management and investigation schemes. By 2016, 9.6 million people will benefit from increased service resilience to external hazards.

Ofwat’s climate change adaptation report
23/Aug/2011 (HTML – 3 KBytes)

Future Impacts on Sewer Systems in England and Wales
A report prepared for Ofwat by Mott MacDonald
29/Jun/2011 (PDF – 1 MBytes)