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Net-zero by 2050: Leaders consider the challenges and opportunities

The world’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as prescribed by the Paris Agreement on climate change, is not a problem of execution. It’s a problem of imagination.

That’s the conundrum presented to the water industry and beyond, according to Chair of Sydney Water Grant King, who spoke as part of a panel presentation during the Ozwater’23 Directors Forum.

Considering what the water sector can do to contribute to the decarbonisation agenda, the panel of luminaries explored the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate demands of the coming decades.

Speaking before an audience of leaders from across the Australian water community, the panel placed the challenge in the context of environmental, social and governance (ESG) frameworks.

“The 2030 target is about execution. We have, both within the water industry and at large in the economy more broadly, those tools we need to reach the 2030 target. It's a problem of execution, it’s a problem of scale; it's a problem around supply chains; it's a problem around permitting access, in order to build what needs to be built,” King said.

“[But meeting the] 2050 target is not a problem of execution; 2050 is a problem of imagination. We do not yet have what we need to hit net zero by 2050, and therefore we have to invent a lot more – we have to think much more creatively, we have to imagine worlds that, today, would seem inconceivable.”

Chair of the Victorian Government Sustainability Fund Freya Marsden also had the decades ahead on her mind, highlighting a risk of running into a number of “nasty tipping points” if change doesn’t take place quickly enough.

“What we're going to be dealing with is a seismic shift in the economy – an enormous pivot for many, many, many businesses of their entire business model,” she said.

“Just think about that when you're building your scenarios on what that means in terms of economic stability.”

The water sector, however, is well-placed to be a leader in this transition, Marsden said.

“First of all, we're highly impacted. That includes water security, of course, but also our physical assets,” she said.

“On the flip side, we have some great superpowers – and I'm not saying that we're perfect, I think we need to work on these. But we already have a great tradition of long-term thinking and scenario planning.”

Marsden also accentuated the water industry’s experience in cross-sector collaboration and community engagement.

Thinking whole-of-system

Jo Plummer, Chair of Barwon Water, provided insights from how her utility is using its resources to face the challenge – beginning with Barwon Water’s relationship with the Indigenous community.

“We have some incredible partnerships with Traditional Owners and, I can certainly say, if boards and executive teams lean into those, there are some real opportunities to work together,” she said.

“Over tens of thousands of years, Traditional Owners have treaded lightly on our country with caring-for-Country principles [and] the idea of regenerating resources for intergenerational opportunity.

“And of course, you could arguably say that Traditional Owners were the first thought leaders when it came to whole-of-systems thinking.”

Plummer cautioned against being too optimistic though.

“There are lots of problems out there, and they're big, and they're ugly,” she said.

“We can't just think of ourselves as a water industry; we have to think whole-of-system. We need to have a multiplier mindset to everything we do; it has to have an exponential value to the challenges that we tackle, which means genuine, strong leadership, risk and opportunity taking.”

Inflection point

James Moore, a Principal at Jacobs specialising in climate response, said that climate is shifting from a concern restricted to one distinct team at a water organisation, and expertise is becoming a universal requirement.

“We're seeing that what we call climate or carbon literacy is needed across the organisation, so that not just specialists, but also the board members and the design engineers and the project managers, are having to understand climate change implications and the decarbonisation implications of what they're building or managing or operating,” he said.

“We've seen that with regulatory functions as well, and there's certainly quite a lot more due diligence that we're seeing in terms of climate change and greenhouse gas and understanding those as part of those investment decisions.”

Panel facilitator Janine Barrow, Jacobs’s Regional Solutions Director for Digital Solutions, APAC, acknowledged the scale of the challenge.

“The water sector has hit an inflection point; there has perhaps never been a greater and more urgent need for continued focus on timely response,” she said.

“I think there’s some key themes here in terms of governance, disclosure, risk, nexus and systems thinking, partnerships and opportunities.”