News from the Columbia Climate School

Is it time to water down Copenhagen?

With the Copenhagen climate talks kicking off today, I thought it was  worth highlighting the close connection between water and climate, particularly as it pertains to energy use.  While goodness knows the delegates in Copenhagen will have enough to do to hammer out even a “framework” agreement, I hope some attention will be paid to the close relationship between water and climate.  An important, and timely, new report by the International Water  Association highlights the water and climate connection.

The relationship between water and climate is closely related to the water/energy nexus, a frequent topic on this blog and one of our primary research areas at CWC.   Our friends at the River Network do a great job of explaining how water is used in energy, and energy in water.  In a broad sense, water and energy use are positively correlated – an increase in one will lead to an increase in the other.   Similarly, on a macro level, decreasing water consumption will lead to less energy use.  Polices and strategies to manage demand for water could then result in conservation of energy, and a corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.   Likewise, changes that lead to a decreased consumption of energy will also lead to a decrease in water use.   The magnitude of these changes is open to question, but it’s worth pointing out that in the United States, at least 13% of total electricity use is for water management, according to the River Network.

In terms of water, energy and climate, things get complicated quickly, however.  Solar power, for example, has minimal carbon emissions, but the most cost-effective technologies are terribly water intensive.  Osmotic power, an even more experimental source, has zero emissions, but requires significant supplies of fresh water.  Policy makers and planners will need to consider these trade-offs.   In an effort to cut emissions, simply switching to “good” renew ables like solar is not an adequate strategy.   Meeting energy needs requires considering numerous resource factors, not simply carbon output.   One takeaway from this though, is that conservation is a win-win strategy.  By conserving water, or energy, there are no hard choices that need to be made, no tradeoffs between limiting carbon emissions.

I hope our leaders in Copenhagen can keep this in mind.  The best way to reduce energy, carbon, and water use together is not to swap one source of energy for another, but rather to encourage and promote conservation strategies across the board. 

As the Copenhagen conference continues, I hope to look at some other factors of the water climate relationship.  Be sure to check out the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog, for a great series about Copenhagen.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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