How universal labelling can safeguard our precious water supply
by Felix Davey
We all know that water is precious resource. We can’t live without it. But in our wet climate, it’s easy to take water for granted. With all this rain, surely the taps will never run dry?
The reality is that our water supply is under increasing strain – for several reasons. Let’s start with the way we live today. Our homes have more bathrooms and more powerful appliances, creating an unprecedented demand for water.
The average home in the UK uses around 330 litres of water every day – that’s 140 litres for every person. By 2050, the UK’s population is expected to grow from 67 million to 75 million, increasing the demand for water even more.
Then there’s climate change and the extreme weather it brings. By 2040, over half of our summers are predicted to be hotter than the record heatwave in 2003 – when temperatures in the UK reached 38°C.
This is likely to cause severe water shortages, especially in the drier south east, and it won’t be offset by the wetter climate at other times of year. Water companies capture much less rainfall than you might assume.
Even today, 12 of the 23 water companies in England are rated as being under ‘serious’ stress. In just 25 years, according the Environment Agency, we could reach ‘the jaws of death’ – the point at which there isn’t enough water to supply our needs.
You might think that escaping ‘the jaws of death’ is a good enough reason for saving water, but here’s another one.
Each time we use water, we also use energy. Heating water in our homes makes up about 4% of the UK’s total emissions of carbon dioxide – one of the main greenhouse gases causing climate change. You can see from the chart the level of emissions we need to save to reach net zero by 2050 from heating and other areas of our daily lives.
That’s just on the domestic front. When you consider all the energy needed to treat, pump and deliver water to our homes, it’s no surprise that Scottish Water is the largest user of electricity in Scotland.
So you can see why water efficiency is vital. It can cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce energy bills (as well as water bills, for those on a meter) – not to mention safeguarding a precious resource and helping us escape ‘the jaws of death’.
With time running out, bold actions are needed to save water. The Energy Saving Trust has found that one such action will make a huge difference – introducing a universal water label.
The mandatory European Energy Label on electrical appliances has revolutionised our energy usage, resulting in lower carbon dioxide emissions and lower bills. In a similar way, a universal water label would show you at a glance which household products use less water, saving both energy and money.
There are already several labelling schemes to help you identify the most water efficient products, including the European Water Label and the UK’s own Waterwise Recommend Checkmark. But these voluntary schemes aren’t working, with some manufacturers reluctant to label products that use large amounts of water.
So the Energy Saving Trust was commissioned by the Government and the water companies to explore the different options for universal water labelling. Using data from labelling schemes around the world, together with data on product performance and availability, we put together an extensive cost benefit analysis. Our findings were clear.
The option that saved the most water was also the most cost effective – introducing a mandatory label on all household products that use water (like taps, showerheads, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers), then linking the label with building regulations for new housing and minimum standards for products.
Within 25 years, this option will reduce water usage by 31 litres per person, every day. In the same period, it will also save 55.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of taking 23 million cars off the road for a year.
So how would it work? We propose that the universal water label has a simple A-G rating, measuring the product’s performance in litres. As well as providing definitive information to help you choose the most water efficient product, a label will raise awareness and change perceptions about the value of water.
The label will also be used to set minimum standards, nudging manufacturers to develop more water efficient products. Just like lightbulbs, legislation will phase out lower rated products over time – preventing manufacturers from selling products with less than a C rating in one year, for example, then a B rating in two years and so on.
The label will also be linked to building regulations – with housebuilders compelled by legislation to install products with better than a B rating, for example, in new homes.
So where do things stand? The Government has reviewed our study and launched a public consultation on the key proposals. If these get the go ahead, a universal water label could be introduced in two years. With our water supply under such strain, it can’t come soon enough.
The industry is getting behind universal water labelling, and the Energy Saving Trust has provided the evidence that it will work. Now we need to make it happen.
Universal water labelling is one way to save water and escape ‘the jaws of death’, but other actions are needed too. In Scotland, where the water supply isn’t metered, the Energy Saving Trust has pioneered a range of efficiency initiatives.
In 2012, we conducted a trial with 2,000 households, providing some with water saving devices (like showerheads) and giving others the devices but also advice about reducing their water usage. We then installed meters to measure how much water each household used. As you might expect, the ones who got devices and advice saved the most water. This dual approach has now been rolled out across Scotland.
With our awareness campaign, we found that people were surprised about the need to save water in Scotland – a place not known for its dry weather. They were more likely to take action when we connected the dots between water and energy, explaining that saving water also means cutting carbon dioxide emissions and reducing energy bills.
We also discovered that community based campaigns were the most effective. People changed their behaviour to save water if they knew they weren’t doing it alone – because individual actions can seem like just a drop in the ocean.
Easing the strain on our water supply will require a big change, in how we use water and how we perceive its value. But through our efficiency initiatives in Scotland and our efforts to introduce a universal water label, the Energy Saving Trust is helping turn the tide.