Context-Based Water Targets: Why should business care?

By Rylan Dobson, Water Stewardship Consultant for WWF & Alexis Morgan, WWF Global Water Stewardship Lead

Views expressed in this article are those of WWF and don’t represent those of other organisations working in the CBWT initiative

© Global Warming Images / WWF

For decades scientists have been warning that human impacts are pushing life on our planet beyond its capacity and into a new era in our planets history: the Anthropocene. An era where humans are the primary drivers of planetary change rather than natural forces. Collective human demands on the earth’s regenerative capacity is predicted to continuing growing steadily, assuming current population and income trends remain constant, and exceed such capacity by 75% by 2020. Year-on-year, more areas are impacted by water scarcity and extreme events, like droughts and floods, are becoming more regular and more destructive.

The instances where our demand is outstripping water supply in basins is growing, while formal regulatory and water allocation systems struggle to keep up. Many, if not all, of these water related trends are confirmation that, when it comes to water, we are already exceeding basin thresholds. Sustainable business and supply chains require sustainable basins and in 2017 companies committed to spending US$23.4 billion in response to these trends, a sign of the magnitude that these challenges present companies and C-suite decision making.

Without water there is no business. Moreover, ensuring that we live within the capacity of our planet goes beyond just creating a “safe operating space” for society, it is at the heart of creating a future where every water user, including businesses and their customers, can thrive.

© James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

The demand & supply gap

The 2030 Water Resources Group included a graphic (Figure 1) in a report titled Charting Our Water Future in 2009 that sought to illustrate a potential gap between the future demand for freshwater and its renewable supply. It offers a vivid illustration that we must invest in solutions that go beyond site-based efficiency to ensure that we are able to collectively live within the renewable capacity of our freshwater systems. The margin for error is disappearing. Managing this supply-demand imbalance is the new normal for business!

Accordingly, the underlying question when setting water targets becomes not “what performance efficiencies could we realistically achieve” but “what level of water performance do we need to achieve” to ensure that a business takes meaningful responsibility for ensuring that its impacts remain within the capacity of our planet and don’t contribute to an exceedance of nature’s capacity.

Figure 1: The gap between demand and supply of water. Adapted from WRG2030, 2009

What do Context-Based Water Targets offer or do?

Developing a meaningful and credible response that defines what is needed performance for a site is not a quick process. Within high risk basins and at strategically relevant sites, setting a Context-/Science-Based Target for Water (CBWT) ensures that the site is focused on addressing the most relevant shared water challenges through its targets, but it also provides a framework that seeks to provide an answer to this question of needed performance more directly to ensure that the site’s performance is within the capacity of the basin’s renewable supply of water and ability to assimilate pollutants.

CBWTs are not the quick targets, but they are also the last targets you may need to set as they show you the finish line, not the next benchmark. In a world that is set to face ongoing water quantity and quality challenges, CBWTs are all about working towards an end state that ensures long-term business viability for operations and supply chains.

Water is a common pool resource, is highly localised, temporally variable, and has social, environmental and economic uses that are each valued differently by its users. This makes it a highly complex resource to work with when trying to find a meaningful answer to the question of needed performance. However, the foundational principles that underpin a Context-/Science-Based Target for water are not new to the business world. The 450 businesses that have chosen to set Science-Based Targets for greenhouse gas emissions have embraced these principles. Now we need to find a way to apply these same principles to water and to ensure our basins can sustain ecosystems, society and businesses into the future.

© Staffan Widstrand / WWF

Why Context-Based Water Targets are the right end point

Building a resilient business starts with ensuring that the impacts on water resources, within a basin, are within the capacity of that system. We acknowledge that water use by businesses creates societal value. Water is the ultimate enabler of that value creation. If businesses do not act, if we do not work with them to create tools that will drive change, people and nature will never live in a water secure world.

Having lost over 80% of freshwater species in the last four decades and facing a future in which we will no longer have enough water for people and businesses, let alone nature, we are running out of time. We can no longer afford incremental change; we need to define our tipping points and set targets that will avoid them.

Setting water targets according to scientific thresholds will become the new normal of corporate water targets out of necessity — they are not a short-lived trend. Understanding scientific thresholds during target setting is the only way to ensure that we collectively:

  • Do not exceed thresholds of basin sustainability;
  • Create healthy and resilient social, environmental and economic systems within basins so that every user has access to the water that they need;
  • Enable a future where businesses can grow and flourish; and
  • Provide a mechanism for users to more effectively contribute towards mitigating basin risks and unlock opportunities to create more value.

WWF is committed to developing practical guidance, tools, and implementation pathways for Context-/Science-Based approaches to setting corporate water targets. To this end, we will be launching — as part of the updated Water Risk Filter — a tool to help companies take the first step toward setting stronger water targets.

WWF Water Risk Filter

Embracing the new normal

The global/local trends of supply and demand imbalances that most basins face will not be resolved by setting more “ambitious” efficiency targets. We collectively face a choice: (1) businesses continue to set incremental internal efficiency related targets, and put everyone’s assets at risk, or (2) businesses embrace this new normal, and engage in fundamentally shifting corporate water target paradigms that will maintain key thresholds of sustainability and enable all to thrive.

Setting targets that articulate and contribute towards a destination that ensures that everyone within a basin can stay “in business” is the new normal — so it isn’t a question of “if” but when businesses embrace this new reality. Making the cultural and operational changes necessary to ensure that business performance and impacts enable basins to stay within their natural capacities will be tough, but it is a strategic business imperative. WWF is prepared to help companies make the necessary step changes to achieve this shift.