Why Water Isn’t the Next Carbon


By David Jay
“Water is the next carbon” has become a go-to-soundbyte in the workshops and conferences I’ve been attending recently. But the closer I’ve looked, the more I’ve begun to uncover reasons why that’s just not true.

Why Water is Smaller than Carbon
At first glance, managing water seems like a coming echo of the still-yodeling world of carbon accounting. Both have to do with the environment, and keep employees, customers, and stakeholders happy. Both are a way to stay ahead of regulation from Congress and the EPA. Both involve looking at your operations and supply chain, seeing where the most stuff gets used, and trying to use less of it. So what’s the big deal?

Carbon Fatigue
After an exhaustive carbon footprinting process many firms want a new strategic direction and are apprehensive about wading into another hairy environmental reporting project.

Water is Cheap
The nice thing about saving carbon is that it generally saves money. Carbon coming out of a company generally starts as electrons and fuel coming in, and both electrons and fuel ain’t cheap. Water, on the other hand, is often almost too cheap to meter. Agricultural growers use 80% of California’s water. When I asked a major grower about installing basic measures to save the water massive amounts of water used to irrigate his crops, he said “It takes $3500 to grow an acre of spinach. $90 of that is water. If I use 10% less water I risk crop failure and I get 9 bucks, it’s just not worth it.”

Why Water is Going to Be Bigger Than Carbon

Because It’s Tangible
Carbon emissions are a global abstraction. If the company next door emits too much carbon it’ll contribute to a climatologically complicated unprecedented phenomena that I may or may not believe in. If the company next door pollutes my water or uses it all up then I die.

Water operates with the abruptness of a tap shutting off. Few people care about water until they feel that their supply is at risk, and then everyone cares. Stakeholder pressure around water can emerge much faster and be much uglier than anything we’ve seen around carbon.

Water supply and quality issues can also have a tangible impact on operations. Water shortages triggered by climate change have already begun to impact Nestle’s supply of cocoa from Africa. Although these sorts of shortages are still in their infancy in the US, all we have to do is take a good look at Australia to give us an idea of what’s in store.

Because It’s Local
Every time I breathe in, I get a few molecules of air breathed by Ghandi, Beyonce and Aristotle. The atmosphere is one global pool, which means that carbon accounting has the luxury of ignoring where carbon is emitted (with the exception of differences in local laws.)

With water, risk is hyper-localized. The risk associated with a company’s use of water is tied to its watershed, complicated tombs of local regulation, who’s using water up and downstream, and what stakeholder groups live in its backyard. Simply counting water is meaningless unless firms can also track the myriad local risk and opportunity factors associated with everywhere that it uses water. This makes water risk reporting a much larger and uglier beast than carbon reporting, in terms of both the data analysis involved and in terms of the aggregate risk involved. It’ll take a much bigger ecosystem and a higher net percentage of revenues to manage all of those risks and opportunities effectively.

Because it’s Climate Adaptation, not Climate Mitigation
When it comes down to it, managing carbon is just a moral imperative. Cut our emissions and we (hopefully) make the shocks of global climate weirding a little less severe. The little bit that we can push the lever won’t make enough of a difference, so we call on everyone else to push with us.

Water is a survival imperative, arguably the biggest of these coming shocks. As climatological science comes down the pipe and people begin to understand how global watersheds will change (though climate is just one of a host of drivers) everyone, not just the morally motivated, will sit up and take notice. When they do they won’t see a global problem that requires a global solution, but a limited local resource that they need their piece of.

If the metaphor for carbon is pushing the needle together, then the metaphor for water is the human immune system. In the immune system, a shockingly diverse array of cells collaborate seamlessly to deal with everything from viruses to parasites to splinters. The cells learn as they go, and rarely get confused and attack the body which supports them. If carbon is one problem located everywhere, water is millions of problems located anywhere. It will take a diverse, decentralized, adaptive ecosystem to keep us thriving.

David Jay is a current MBA student at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA

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