April 18. 2024. 12:21

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Transforming water risks into the industry’s opportunity for the next decade

Would industries remain inactive if tomorrow they were deprived of energy? No. Yet, European industries risk drowning themselves in this situation due to another vital economic resource: water. The revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive is the once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn water risks into industrial opportunity.

Whether one likes it or not, water stress is increasingly putting industrial value chains under pressure due to water pollution and scarcity. The World Resource Institute predicts a 56% gap between water supply and demand by 2030. Europe will not escape from this risk, as demonstrated by the winter droughts we are currently facing. In addition, industrial emissions into water did not really decrease last decade, threatening all the more water availability.

Industries need to integrate water risks into their core business.

If industries seem to be aware of energy issues linked to their production, they shall start factoring in the water-related ones. Industries will pay 5 times more with a business-as-usual behaviour than investing to tackle water risks in their activities. For instance, the cost of derogating to the thermal pollution’s standards, in order to ensure France’s energy security, would have been avoided by implementing water-smart measures.

Solutions do exist! The European R&D programmes fund technological and non-technological innovations that shall be deployed in industrial infrastructures and processes. These solutions allow for addressing both industrial emissions into water and water consumption for production.

As the European Union has invested in innovative projects across Member States, relevant stakeholders have to ensure their usefulness. The EU policymakers are already considering these new solutions that industry shall start implementing to comply with the EU regulation. Brines management techniques for textile industries illustrate the benefits for both the industry and our environment. Furthermore, such technologies are not limited to one specific sector but can be replicated into coal, silica, or any other brine-related industry across Europe.

The cost of such investments is not a right justification. Digitalisation offers the opportunity to reduce the financial impact of water-smart investment, while providing additional agility in the industrial processes. It also strengthens the resilience of industrial infrastructures against water insecurity. For example, the EU-funded AquaSPICE project demonstrated how digital tools and circular processes can tackle water risks for industry while the Ultimate project is implementing water-smart industrial symbiosis in nine large scale business cases from agro-food, petrochemical and biotech sector, stressing the replicability on large scale of such innovation.

Policymakers have to put the right drivers into the EU legislation.

While Europe remains insufficiently protecting its industry from water risks, China does it successfully. In the Yangtze Basin, which would be the 3rd largest economy in the world if treated as a country, the State implemented key policies to address water-related challenges. Through eco-redlines, water use and discharge permits, and eco-compensation schemes, China maintains its competitiveness even though 45% of its GDP depends on the Yangtze River Economic Belt.

Therefore, investing in water-related solutions isn’t and cannot be an obstacle to industries’ competitiveness, but it’s rather a paramount driver to ensure their leadership in the global market. Sustainability for world’s industries will depend on the way they succeed in maintaining their production while water resources are increasingly scarcer.

European policymakers must take political and societal responsibility to ensure that the EU remains a frontrunner in terms of environmental protection and solutions development. The so-called “Brussel’s effect”, referring to what is described as an EU global regulatory power, will be damaged if Europe misses its opportunity to address water challenges in the industry. Europe shall promote water-smart standards for industry, as it will be otherwise forced to comply with foreign leadership.

All EU Member States are impacted by this issue. While industrial and environmental contexts differ from country to country, all European industrial value chains face water stress. In this respect, when it comes to industrial emissions into water, solutions could be found in a transboundary approach. As downstream water bodies quality relies on upstream activities, the European Union shall handle the regional action for a better use of water in industry.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn water risks into an industrial opportunity.

The Industrial Emissions Directive is the main EU instrument regulating pollutant emissions from industrial installations. It was adopted in 2010 to achieve a high level of protection of human health and the environment across Europe. There is now a need for fulfilling its weaknesses. As the purpose of a directive is to envision the future, policymakers and industrial stakeholders don’t have the luxury of wasting another decade to take the opportunity to preserve industries’ competitiveness from water risks. Short-term considerations – like the current geopolitical situation and the associated energy crisis – will not help the industry.

To avoid conflict between the different water uses while ensuring access to clean water to all users, the Industrial Emissions Directive shall stimulate each industry to reduce its water footprint, leverage water-related standards and reduce water contamination from industrial activities. Digital tools shall be promoted as they allow crucial water-energy efficiencies and a better assessment of water risks for industrial installations, which are necessary to maintain their competitiveness.

This is one of the main drivers towards a Water-Smart Society in which the true value of water is recognised and realised, and all available water sources are managed in such a way that water scarcity and pollution of water resources are avoided. In such a society, water and resource loops are largely closed to foster a circular economy and optimal resource efficiency, and the water system is resilient against the impact of climate change events and all relevant stakeholders are involved in the governance of our water system.

Europe aims to be the leader for environmental policy in a global context. What could we, however, name as European accountability, if it does not support its industry’s need for water pollution reduction targets and water efficient processes?