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Virtual Water, Virtual Carbon

Lucka Kajfež Bogataj*

Addressing climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing our planet and its inhabitants. Over the course of millions of years, climate change was fundamentally a biophysical phenomenon. However, the recent and accelerating warming of the Earth’s climate is largely attributable to human activity, and its impacts are mediated by psychological and social processes and can be limited primarily by human activity. CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are the primary cause of global warming. Many key climate indicators are moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which contemporary society and economy have developed and thrived. These indicators include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, global ocean temperature, Arctic sea ice extent, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. With unabated emissions of greenhouse gases, many of the trends in climate change will likely accelerate, leading to an increased risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts. The impacts of climate change on water systems are already apparent in many parts of the world, with accelerating impacts likely for several decades. Pressure on water supplies is exacerbated by changes in rainfall patterns and water availability resulting from climate change. A lack of clean water in many of the new megacities, where ten million or more inhabitants live, is already an issue of serious concern.

Society already has many tools and approaches – economic, technological, behavioral, and managerial – to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. These tools should be vigorously and widely implemented; if they are not, adaptation to the unavoidable climate change and de-carbonization of economies will not be achieved. And given the uncertainties around projections of climate impacts on water resources at both local and regional scales, the most effective adaptations include building resilience, managing risks, and employing adaptive management techniques.

Climate change may also present an opportunity to build a healthy, prosperous, clean energy economy for both now and for the future. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to achieve effective and rapid adaptation and mitigation. These include new jobs in the sustainable energy sector; reductions in the health, social, economic and environmental costs of climate change; and revitalization of ecosystem services.

But to achieve all this, people must develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to make informed decisions now and in the future, and to act upon these decisions. If we really want to build a better future, we need to understand the actual nature of the problems we face. In terms of climate change, this may be easier than some might have us believe. Much attention has been focused on the CO2 directly emitted by each country, but relatively little attention has been paid to the amount of emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in each country. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions differs from traditional, production-based inventories because of imports and exports of goods and services that, either directly or indirectly, involve CO2 emissions.

On the level of individual citizens, many times the publicity seems to be about reducing the fossil energy or water that we consume directly, as when driving a car or taking a bath. But in case of carbon, our direct consumption may be less than half of the total carbon produced. The other half goes directly or indirectly into the products or services that we buy. Water and carbon are hidden in all that we see: in our cars, our clothing, and in our sandwiches. When we manufacture goods, we embed energy and water in them: that is, their very existence means we have already spent a certain amount of energy or water, no matter what we then do with them.

An individual product’s carbon content is the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted from every stage of its production and distribution, from source to store. This is also known as “virtual carbon”, “embedded carbon”, or “the carbon footprint”. Manufacturing a new car requires energy and that in turn leads to greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. So when one drives a new car out of the shop, this car has already effectively emitted anywhere from three to 12 tons of virtual CO2. We also tend to forget that the energy used to produce the many electronic gadgets that populate our lives is considerably higher than the energy used during their operation. In the case of water, “virtual water” is the volume of fresh water used to produce a product, summed up over the various steps of the production chain. In both cases, it is also important to understand when and where the water or energy was used: both the virtual carbon and virtual water footprint include a temporal and spatial dimension. Virtual carbon and virtual water are usually connected. There is a lot of energy embedded in our water, and our water use has a massive carbon footprint due to pumping, treating, and heating. Water and energy are linked, and both are related to climate change. While our water footprints are expanding, climate change is exacerbating water scarcity in many parts of the world, with many places literally running out of water. And since our water footprints extend beyond the borders of our states, our consumption affects water supplies in other parts of the world.

A kilo of wheat takes 1m3 of water to grow from sowing to harvest; one ton of rice consumes around 1,400m3, while 14,000m3 of water is needed to produce one ton of beef. When we consider how much water is embedded in the food we transport around the planet, it turns out that there is already a massive consumption of virtual water. The wetter regions of the world every year ship vast amounts of embedded water to the drier parts of the planet.

In practice, virtual water often involves countries importing water resources from other countries who are water-poor themselves, thus depriving their own inhabitants of water. Certain countries exhaust their water resources, both in quantity and quality, to the profit of others. The same is true for virtual carbon, because globalization has tended to move heavy polluting industries offshore, away from Europe and North America, to places like China and Brazil. We still consume the lion’s share of goods these nations manufacture, but the carbon is emitted there, not in the developed world. In some wealthy countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, more than 30% of consumption-based emissions were imported, with net imports to many Europeans of more than four tons CO2 per person in 2004. Net import of emissions to the United States in the same year was about 2.4 tons CO2 per person. In contrast, 22.5% of the emissions produced in China in 2004 were exported, on net, to consumers elsewhere. For instance, if EU meets its Kyoto target in 2012 (as it may well do), it won’t be because European consumers have made sacrifices to save the planet; it will be because we, like other Western nations, have exported a sizeable proportion of our carbon emissions to China.

Ultimately, the flow of virtual water and virtual carbon through international trade flows has the ability to undermine environmental policies, particularly for climate change. So wherein lies the solution, at what cost, and to whom? There is still no clear answer, but showing people the “virtual water” content or “virtual carbon” content of various consumption goods will go a long way to increase the fossil fuel and water awareness of people. Measuring the virtual water and carbon content of our products is a necessary first step to improving and demonstrating our commitment to greater efficiencies and performance.

The future challenge lies in improving practices so that water and fossil fuels are used more effectively and not wasted. There should be much more focus on making products that last longer or that can be repaired, rather than continually making new ones. Sharing responsibility for emissions among producers and consumers could facilitate international agreements on global climate policy that are now hindered by concerns over the regional and historical inequity of emissions.

We can significantly and easily reduce our water and carbon footprints. We can buy water- and energy-efficient goods, and we can start asking shops to provide information on how much water and carbon is embedded in their products. And we can ask our leaders to make energy and water use efficiency across all sectors of society a priority. It is time for us all to act! Various means are available to inform consumers. They include websites, school education programs, leaflets from local authorities and utilities, and the mass media. Eco-labeling of appliances and eco-certification of businesses can also play an important role in raising awareness, helping consumers to make more informed choices about water and energy efficiency and conservation.

It is high time to highlight the need both nationally and internationally for the proper management of our shared global water and energy resources. Water and energy efficiency at all levels – home, city, nation, and planet – is crucial to ensure the security of our water and fossil energy supplies. By eliminating water and energy waste today, we can make certain that we will have enough water and energy for tomorrow, and we can make sure that there will be enough to go around to all, including the natural environment in which we live.

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*Prof. Dr. Lu?ka Kajfež Bogataj is a climatologist and a member of IPCC, Biotechnical Faculty, Slovenia. She is also a C:F Advisory Board member.

 

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Maggie Peng

Maggie Peng

Eco-labeling of products is definitely needed for the future so people can choose products that are efficiently manufactured and do not exploit developing countries.

26th August, 2010 @ 7:48 PM CEST

Jatin Kataria

Jatin Kataria | Action team | CF Chapters

New learning for me.. this lecture was very interesting ...

I started taking water issue seriously after listening Dr. Lucka on VC VW..
but still I would love to know how to calculate virtual water and virtual carbon...

20th October, 2010 @ 8:11 PM CEST

Dharmesh Bhadja

Dharmesh Bhadja | Action team

Businesses are likely to be affected both by climate change itself and by policies to address it. These concerns together with the short-term performance pressures are foreseen as the most complex business challenges in the next two decades. The future expectations are already reflected in today’s stock prices. However, the companies might be badly handicapped or even not exist anymore in the time of payback. - DARKO HORVAT, AKTIVA GROUP
Society already has many tools and approaches – economic, technological, behavioural and managerial – to deal effectively with the climate change challenge.
Thanks for sharing the resolution with practical application... We can buy water- and energy-efficient goods, and we can start asking shops to provide information on how much water and carbon is embedded in their products. And we can ask our leaders to make energy and water use efficiency across all sectors of society a priority. It is time for us all to act! Various means are available to inform consumers. They include websites, school education programs, leaflets from local authorities and utilities, and the mass media. Eco-labelling of appliances and eco-certification of businesses can also play an important role in raising awareness, helping consumers to make more informed choices about water and energy efficiency and conservation.

28th October, 2010 @ 7:22 PM CEST

Harshit Kachchhi

Harshit Kachchhi

Prof. Lucka Kajfež Bogataj has really taught me a new thing about which I just had very little knowledge.

In the pursuit of achieving the goal of "Go Green", this article really helps in understanding the phenomenon.

Thank you professor for showing the base issue and providing alternate solution too. :)

14th November, 2010 @ 5:29 PM CEST

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Businesses are likely to be affected both by climate change itself and by policies to address it. These concerns together with the short-term performance pressures are foreseen as the most complex business challenges in the next two decades. Thefuture expectations are already reflected in today’s stock prices. However, the companies might be badly handicapped or even not exist anymore in the time of payback.

Statement from the book by Darko Horvat, Aktiva Group

It would be great to see that technologies didn’t destroy the planet butt hat they will be able to rotect it for next generations.

Statement from the book by Andi Češko (C:F Finals Judge), CEO,Studio Moderna, Slovenia

The lack of forests will leave us breathless while our wooden furniture will look spotless.

Statement from the book by Luka Penić, Croatia

I worry that by 2020,Baikal lake, which is a pride of all people born in Siberia, will be destroyed. Baikal has20% of world’s cleanest fresh water.

Statement from the book by Natalia Efimova, Russia

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