Energy sources are needed to achieve the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal for clean water and sanitation (SDG6), in order to facilitate energy-intensive water treatment processes. At the same time, the energy sector consumes a huge amount of water; therefore, water efficiency and energy consumption are critical aspects of SDG6. With this in mind, a team of international researchers has outlined new pathways for the development of water and energy infrastructure that are consistent with both the Paris Agreement targets ― to limit global warming to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels ― and SDG6, published on 11 January in Environmental Research Letters (1).
The world is on track to meet only 10 of 17 SDGs; moreover, achieving SDGs using conventional policy tools may come at the expense of environmental goals, such as stabilizing the climate, decreasing pollution, and maintaining biodiversity (2). Thus, dual adoption of SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement ― which also demands that mitigation decisions consider impacts on the SDGs ― will be necessary.
Current targets set out by SDG6 will have important implications for future energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions since clean water and energy are interdependent: the energy sector relies on large amounts of water for many processes, while water treatment and sanitation processes use a huge amount of energy. At present, 2.1 billion people do not have access to clean water and 1.1 billion lack access to electricity. Furthermore, several other SDGs, including those associated health, ecosystems, and poverty, depend on meeting water and energy sustainability objectives. Despite this, there is a lack of consistent policy treatment across water and energy systems at the global scale.
The authors write, “Identifying long-term infrastructure strategies that effectively balance water, energy and human development objectives in an integrated manner can assist in achieving the SDGs.” However, they highlight potential trade-offs between certain climate change mitigation measures and clean water solutions that will be necessary. The new study was carried out as part of the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) Project ― an initiative aimed at developing further understanding of the impacts of technologies in key areas relevant to global sustainability ― launched to develop an assessment framework that can provide strategic insights for developing future sustainable solutions to jointly meet water, energy, and land demands at the global level.
The team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) devised an integrated assessment model “to quantify the cost and characteristics of infrastructure pathways balancing SDG6 targets for water access, scarcity, treatment and efficiency with long-term energy transformations limiting climate warming to 1.5 °C.” In other words, how to meet SDG6 targets for clean water while mitigating global warming according to the Paris Climate agreement.
The new framework was built upon the so-called MESSAGEix-GLOBIOM integrated assessment model (IAM), a modelling framework previously used to link other aspects of society and economy with the biosphere and atmosphere. The new pathways account for future shifts in global water use driven by socioeconomic changes and SDGs, as well as water availability, and the potential cost, energy, and emissions impacts of future infrastructure. They looked at a baseline scenario or “business as usual,” as well as pathways separately focused on water and climate policies, and an integrated scenario ― combining water and climate policies.
The findings suggest that global spending to 2030 on water, energy and land systems would increase by 92–125 per cent in the integrated SDG6-1.5 °C scenarios relative to a ‘no policy’ scenario, but the increased costs were relatively small in comparison to implementing each policy on its own. Nonetheless, balancing these trade-offs will require “a global shift in investment and operational decision-making across sectors” which the authors suggest could be implemented through targeted policies based on an integrated water-energy perspective.
The study is the first to suggest an integrated approach by assessing the water, energy and climate goals, and considering potential trade-offs associated with particular certain climate change mitigation measures and solutions consistent with the SDG6. Quantifying the interactions between the Paris Agreement and SDG6 could help define low-cost global pathways consistent with multiple SDG objectives to guide investment decisions and policy.
(1) Parkinson, S. et al. Balancing clean water-climate change mitigation trade-offs. Environmental Research Letters (2018). DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aaf2a3
(2) Transformation is feasible – How to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals within Planetary Boundaries. 2018. Randers, J. et al. A report to the Club of Rome from Stockholm Resilience Centre and BI Norwegian Business School.