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The water industry values profit over people or planet – we need to love every drop to fight climate change

4 min read

Our water infrastructure uses huge amounts of carbon at every turn. Labour would nationalise the water companies to fight climate change and deliver for consumers, writes Luke Pollard MP

When it comes to the causes of the climate crisis, there are a few usual suspects that come to mind – heavy industry, deforestation and air travel to name a few. However, many people don’t realise that water is one of the most carbon intensive industries we have.

Our water infrastructure uses huge amounts of carbon at every turn. Purifying water, pumping it through the system and disposing of sewage all require tremendous amounts of energy, and release huge amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere. Any meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis requires not only a radical shift in how we get water into our homes and businesses, but also for us to use less water and to use that more efficiently. 

Our 30-year-old model of water ownership – with regional, private monopolies – has not been replicated in any other country. It is built on companies making their money by pushing large volumes of water through the system, with customers being charged for its consumption, and disposal of waste water. This means it is in the water companies’ interests for people to be using as much water as possible – exactly the opposite of what we want to do to fight the climate crisis.

In addition, it discourages water companies from taking meaningful action to tackle all the leakages in the system. Politicians of all parties have focussed on leakage, but if we are to truly address the climate crisis, we must have an equal focus on water use as well. Leaking pipes gets consumers very angry, and it should do because they have invested huge amounts of carbon and money in a precious resource that’s now leaking from our system. Moreover, it’s just not fair for people to be paying for water they’re not using.

For my constituency in Plymouth, water prices are a doorstep issue. The botched privatisation of the industry meant we paid double the water bills of the next nearest company. Even as one of poorest regions in the nation and with just 3% of the population, we had to pay for 33% of the coastal clean-up. When I was working for South West Water, I saw how the Clean Sweep programme was successful in cleaning up the waters and beaches around the West Country. However, an unfortunate side effect of this was that bills and water poverty rose.

There is plenty of action we could take to make our water work for us and fight the climate crisis in the process. From fixing hundreds of thousands of leaky loos and fitting efficient taps and showers, to water efficient white goods and a water equivalent of the Energy Performance Certificate for homes, with a minimum acceptable standard.

We’ve found ourselves in a position where our infrastructure is old, dilapidated and inefficient. Then we’re stuck with an ownership model which disincentivises taking action to solve this. And now we’re facing a climate crisis. We must do things differently.

The answer is clear: if we’re going to make any progress in taking on the climate emergency, we need to take the water companies into public ownership. This is not an ideological stance, but an environmental necessity. If we are to fundamentally change the way water is used and valued as a country, we need different economic and regulatory models.

That means a different operating model for water and an end to fat cat profits for private shareholders. We need every penny invested back in our water industry to truly cut carbon, preserve water, protect fragile marine habitats and keep water affordable. The Conservatives currently offer more of the same. Labour is proposing the radical solutions we need to cut carbon and water use so we can fight climate change.


Luke Pollard is Labour and Co-operative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and shadow fisheries, flooding and water minister

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