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Queensland utility gears up on sustainability reporting

Australia’s largest water businesses will soon be required to report against new sustainability-related disclosures, and one utility is taking a proactive approach to the incoming changes with the launch of its own inaugural sustainability report. 

Urban Utilities has released its first sustainability report, highlighting the utility’s continued commitment to creating positive, long-term benefits for communities and the environment.

The inaugural report shares the company’s sustainability actions across seven key areas, including net zero, healthy land and water, waste management, water security, customers and liveable communities, safe and engaged workforce, and corporate governance.

Urban Utilities CEO Paul Arnold said the utility is committed to protecting people and the environment through responsible actions and operations.

“Sustainability is at the heart of all we do, from securing our region’s long-term water supply and reducing our environmental impacts, to having a safe and engaged workforce, and creating positive social value,” he said.

“While sustainability has always been central to our business strategy, the report both formalises and reinforces our commitment, and provides greater transparency and accountability around our ambitions and efforts.”

The release of Urban Utilities’ sustainability report is also a response to growing stakeholder expectations that organisations share their environmental, social and governance (ESG) ambitions and performance.

Issued by the International Sustainability Standards Board, the new sustainability-related disclosures will become mandatory in 2024 for some companies, Arnold said.

“Although a timeframe has yet to be proposed for the water sector, Urban Utilities is proud to be taking a proactive approach,” he said.

“Our sustainability report is, at the moment, a voluntary publication. We need to be ready to transition to mandatory sustainability reporting requirements in the very near future, and our first report has provided us with a strong foundation to build upon.”

Sustainable development

Urban Utilities’ sustainability efforts align to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) – a global action plan, which covers the dimensions of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.

“We know that mature sustainability reporting will be a key driver of progress on sustainability issues in the water sector. The content in our first annual sustainability report is structured according to our newly implemented ESG framework,” Arnold said. 
“The UN SDGs are a comprehensive and universally endorsed set of sustainability objectives that can be applied to corporate, government, and community initiatives.

“To formally assess our progress on sustainability issues, our ESG framework references the global targets set in the UN SDGs.”
Arnold said developing an understanding of what sustainability means in the water sector is also key to driving innovation, leadership and excellence. 

“As our reporting evolves, we want our stakeholders to be able to compare our sustainability impacts against those of our peers, and against other organisations operating in our region,” he said. 
“Our ESG framework also includes the seven most material and consequential sustainability issues for our business, including the climate in South East Queensland and that we don’t manage bulk water supply – unlike some of our peers.”
Existing reporting requirements set by the State and Federal Governments focus on the core components of a water utility, Arnold said. 

“[This includes] the way we manage water as a resource and our customer experience outcomes. However, sustainability is about long-term value,” he said.

“All businesses have broad environmental and social impacts beyond quarterly or yearly financial results and, for a water utility, our long-term sustainability is directly linked to the sustainability of the region we serve. 

“We are really excited to be expanding our reporting to explore our broader environmental and social impacts, including the climate impacts of our operations, our efforts to rehabilitate our lands and waters, the safety and inclusiveness of our workforce, and the long-term sustainability of water supply in our region.”

Making gains

Urban Utilities’ ESG framework sets out the environmental and social strategic priorities, as well as the major underlying programs of work the utility is delivering to improve sustainability outcomes. 

Arnold said it also provides for innovative pilot projects, which are being tested, but haven’t been scaled across operations.
“In terms of the biggest impacts on our sustainability outcomes, we are anticipating that nature-based solutions will be an increasingly important focus for sustainability objectives right across the water industry,” Arnold said. 

“Some of our pilot projects are industry-leading in driving nature-based solutions and our Cannery Creek project is a key example. 

“By using our delivery program to construct a new wetland, we’re creating a nature-based solution that reduces the need to transport wet weather flows long distances, enhances natural amenity for our community, and reduces our capital expenditure. 

“The project is also a phenomenal example of community engagement.”
Also significant is the utility’s decarbonisation pathway, or its ‘Net Zero Roadmap’, which showcases a big focus on key emissions sources, such as electricity.  

“The cogeneration units at two of our largest resource recovery centres are run on the biogas produced from our wastewater treatment process, not only producing renewable electricity for our operations, but also providing heat to optimise the treatment process,” Arnold said. 

“As part of our wider circular economy impact, we’ve partnered with Cleanaway to incorporate organic food waste to not only increase our performance, but avoid landfill emissions.
“We’re also really excited about our world-leading research using algae to treat wastewater efficiently and with lower greenhouse gas emissions in our regional treatment plants. 

“Our attention is now on the opportunity to expand this treatment solution to other suitable treatment plants.”