Environment

I have more than two-and-a-half years experience writing about environmental projects and eco-innovation for the LIFE Communications Team of the European Commission’s DG Environment.

LIFE is the European Union’s financial instrument for the environment. As well as writing and editing thematic publications for the LIFE Environment strand of the programme, as Senior Editor, I am also responsible for coordinating a pool of freelance journalists in three countries. Other tasks include coordinating a compendium of new LIFE projects, helping to update LIFE’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and producing news items for the monthly LIFENews newsletter and LIFE programme website.

Below is a small selection of practical feature, news and policy-related articles that I have produced in the period from January 2008 to present.

LIFE SHOWS VALUE OF ARTIFICIAL WETLANDS IN MITIGATING PESTICIDE POLLUTION

A recently-completed French LIFE Environment project (ArtWET – LIFE06 ENV/F/000133) has tested prototype artificial wetlands – an potentially important new technology in the struggle to reduce non-point source pesticide pollution across Europe. Contamination caused by pesticides used in agriculture is a cause of concern because of the potential impacts on the environment, wildlife and human health. Without treatment or targeted mitigation, this pollution is diffused in the environment, affecting water quality.

Biomass beds most effective
The LIFE ArtWET project tested various bioremediation methods at full-scale experimental sites in France, Germany and Italy. Biomass beds were found to be the most effective mitigation technology, with 99.8% efficiency. They are particularly suitable for dealing with point source pollution and concentrations of insecticides and fungicides. Detention ponds were found to reduce pesticide concentrations in runoff water by 87% during a 30 mm rainfall, whilst vegetated ditches reduced concentrations in runoff water by 52% during a 3-20 mm rainfall; Storm basins achieved a mitigation efficiency of 73% of the total load.

A key finding of the project was that, in order to produce effective results, the use of artificial wetlands must be accompanied by other strategies (such as reduced agro-pharmaceutical use).

Demonstration value
It is hoped that the results of ArtWET could lead to the implementation of new environmental mitigation techniques that meet the demands of the Water Framework Directive (WFD – 2002/60/EC) and the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (2009/128/EC). Aeiforia, a spin-off company of the University Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, is working to disseminate and further develop the systems developed by the LIFE project within Italy, whilst a Franco-German spin-off that will introduce the prototypes in other European countries is under discussion.

(Originally published on the European Commission DG Environment LIFE unit website, July 2010).

HOW BIG IS YOUR WATER FOOTPRINT?

Pulp and Paper producers could soon have to cope with a new set of environmental demands. Following the rapid rise of carbon footprinting, the next question for the industry looks like being “Are you ‘water neutral’?”

The idea of providing a ‘footprint’ of water use was first conceived in 2002 by Professor Arjen Hoekstra of the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. Today, Hoekstra is scientific director of the Water Footprint Network (WFN), an organisation dedicated to promoting the concept, of which doubtless we will hear much more in the coming years.

What is a ‘water footprint’?
On its website (www.waterfootprint.org), the WFN says: “The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business.”

According to the WFN, “The interest in the water footprint is rooted in the recognition that human impacts on freshwater systems can ultimately be linked to human consumption, and that issues like water shortages and pollution can be better understood and addressed by considering production and supply chains as a whole… Water problems are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy. Many countries have significantly externalized their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere. This puts pressure on the water resources in the exporting regions, where too often mechanisms for wise water governance and conservation are lacking. Not only governments, but also consumers, businesses and civil society communities can play a role in achieving a better management of water resources.”

Growth of the concept
“There is a very large interest in the water footprint concept from so many different angles,” notes Hoekstra, speaking exclusively to PPI. Already the WFN has close to 20 partners, including the International Finance Corporation (IFC), World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), WWF, USAID and UNESCO, as well as corporate big-hitters such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unilever. “The NGOs and the businesses were the first ones to really respond. The NGOs because they think they have something at stake they can use and the businesses because they see that and they recognise that stake,” he continues. Some businesses see the water footprint as an extension of their existing corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments, while others are concerned “Because of real business risks: water shortages in their operations or the supply chain,” says Hoekstra.

The concept really started to take off in 2007. “For no particular reason,” says Hoekstra. “It’s just the case that more and more (scientific) publications came out and were available.” He adds that “The questions became very practical: how to use the water footprint concept?”

Consultants have also driven the growth of water footprinting. In the ‘carbon footprint mini-summit’ at last December’s European Paper Week,  energy & environment director of CEPI, Marco Mensinck, explained that a CNN report on the water footprint concept led some some 3,000 consulting organizations to contact the WFN.

A cynical response might be to say that it’s just a lot of hot air and not something for the paper industry to concern itself with. That would be a mistake, particularly if customers such as Unilever and Coca-Cola begin to make purchasing decisions based on the water footprints of their suppliers in years to come.

The WFN website includes sample water footprint calculations for many everyday products, from beer to bread, coffee to cotton. When it comes to paper, the WFN says that 10 L of water are required to produce one sheet of 80 g/m² A4 copy paper (assuming the paper is made from using 100% virgin fiber).

According to the professor, the water footprint concept has several functions: “First of all [it] is an awareness raising tool, but secondly, once you can calculate a number, you can also try to compare yourself with others and see whether your company can do better. And if you can do better, you can also write it down on the product. … I’m sure that in the longer run some businesses will start to make advertisements about the low water footprint of their products.”

Learning from carbon
The WFN is keen to avoid a repeat of the confusion surrounding carbon labelling of consumer products, however. “We know from carbon footprinting that there is a bit of a problem because everybody uses his own standards, his own calculation methods. So if a business says something about its carbon footprints, then you are never sure what it means to say,” explains Prof. Hoekstra. “The main aim of the water footprint network is to avoid this kind of diversity and to come to broadly shared global standards on water footprint accounting.”

A key question for the industry must be: ‘is water footprinting going to have an impact on environmental legislation, for instance at the EU level?’ “It’s a bit early to say that,” responds Hoeskstra, “but I expect [so]… The WBCSD also foresees that governments will start to regulate water footprints in the future.” However, he believes it will be a few years “at the earliest” before any regulatory impact will be felt. Hoeskstra notes that the Spanish government has become the first in the world to make use of his concept, having decided to make water footprint accounting an obligatory element in the river basin plans it will draw up in accordance with the European Water Framework Directive.

Will we be trading water?
The pulp and paper industry has been dealing with the vagaries of the various carbon emissions trading schemes for several years now. Can we expect to see similar schemes for trading water in the coming decade?  “I do not think this is the best road to go,” says Hoeskstra. “We should talk about reduction first: I do not think it is wise to start talking about offsetting at this stage. At the same time, I am sure it will happen,” he adds.

(Originally published in Pulp & Paper International magazine, March 2009).