Built Environment takes a major leap in Race to Zero

Built Environment takes a major leap in Race to Zero



Built Environment takes a major leap in Race to Zero with new joiners and sector progress

4 May 2023

The built environment sector is responsible for almost 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions and 50 per cent of all extracted materials. Because of this, the sector is critical for climate action. Critically, the long lifespan of built assets highlights the need to act now to avoid ‘locking-in’ emissions and climate risk long into the future.

The role of the Built Environment extends beyond emissions reduction. As the ‘stage’ on which our lives are played out, the Built Environment is the platform through which a resilient, equitable and nature-positive future is delivered.

In recognition of this, the Climate Champions have been supporting the sector to reach net zero emissions by 2050. As part of this work, the Built Environment team has been tracking the progress of ‘major’ businesses in the Race to Zero campaign across four sectoral stakeholder groups, which include architects and engineers, construction companies, real estate investment companies, and real estate asset managers.

The team found that 49% of major architects and engineers by revenue have joined the campaign, while only 16% of major construction companies by revenue have joined

Furthermore, 19% of major real estate investment companies by revenue and 29% of major real estate asset managers by revenue have joined the campaign, indicating that the sector is making progress towards decarbonization.

In April alone, six new companies joined the Race to Zero, including Kerry Properties Limited, a Hong Kong-based real estate company, and Daito Trust Construction Co., Ltd., a Japanese real estate company. Both of these companies are significant joiners and will contribute to the sector’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions.

The Built Environment sector has also seen progress in terms of policy, with Dubai announcing its Climate Action Plan to reach net zero and reduce emissions. The WorldGBC has launched its Global Policy Principles, which are driving action in the sector towards achieving net-zero emissions.

In finance, UNEPFI’s Finance Sector Briefing has shown that over 50 major banks and investors have a developed understanding of the physical and transitional risks of real estate. This report paves the way for the finance sector to price the cost of non-resilient and inefficient buildings into their funding decisions.

The sector has several strategically important events coming up, including the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, Finland, and the EmiratesGBC Annual Congress, which will discuss the road to COP28.

Notwithstanding the positive signals of change, currently the Built Environment sector is not on track to achieve decarbonization by 2050. UNEP’s 2022 Buildings Global Status Report shows that whilst decarbonisation efforts have increased since 2015, these efforts are swapped by the growth of the sector globally.

Addressing this call-to-action will require accelerating ‘radical collaboration’ across the value chain, to drive market transformation. The upcoming ‘Buildings Breakthrough’, due for launch ahead of COP28, will provide a forum for driving international collaboration to unlock climate action on buildings.

The Built Environment 2030 Breakthrough Outcome

Our dedicated Built Environment 2030 Breakthrough Outcome page provides information and resources for anyone interested in tracking the sector’s efforts to achieve net zero.

The page highlights the importance of the sector’s transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy and provides updates on the progress being made by key stakeholders, such as major architects/engineers, construction companies, real estate investment companies, and asset managers.

The page also features a list of new members who have joined the Race to Zero, along with relevant events, policy developments, case studies and partners, such as ​​the Buiding to COP initiative.




High Tech Innovations Are Key To A Greener Economy


In a Forbes Business Development Council article, it is held that High Tech Innovations Are Key To A Greener Economy.  Syed Alam 5 Ways To Ensure A More Sustainable Future.  

Environmentally Responsible and Resource-efficient in the MENA region, was and still is concerned for anything green that were second to that fundamentally frantic development of buildings and all related infrastructure to nevertheless greater and greater awareness of their various environmental impact. 

The image above is Getty



High Tech Innovations Are Key To A Greener Economy: 5 Ways To Ensure A More Sustainable Future


Syed is Accenture’s High Tech global lead, helping clients reinvent their business, optimize supply chain and create new revenue models.

The high-tech industry is central to moving the sustainability agenda forward and enabling a greener planet through the design of more sustainable products using the rise of smart sensors as a way to better manage energy consumption.

At my company Accenture, we have already seen great progress in a wide variety of products, from smart thermostats and solar-powered smart watches to electric vehicles and more power-efficient CPUs in data centers. These products are not only more sustainable and good for the environment, but they are also good for business and future growth.

A recent study from United Nations Global Compact and Accenture shows strategies and business models with sustainability at their core are not only a climate imperative but also the foundation for better security, growth and resilience. This is supported by another recent study’s indication that the supply chain is key to fighting climate change, as supply chains generate up to 60% of global emissions.

While many companies have mastered Scope 1 emissions, most companies lack visibility into the upstream supplier base, called “Scope 3” emissions. For high-tech companies, 86% of upstream Scope 3 emissions sit outside their Tier 1 suppliers.

High-tech companies are deploying strategies to help the industry meet environmental sustainability goals. The Semiconductor Climate Consortium is one excellent example of semiconductor companies coming together to collaborate and align on common approaches and technology innovations to continuously reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In this article, I will outline five strategies high-tech leaders can adopt to ensure a more sustainable future both within their own organizations and across the supply chain.

1. Recycling Products

E-waste, driven in part by consumers upgrading to the latest smartphones and data centers swapping out servers to keep up with the demands of AI, is both damaging to the planet and costing high-tech companies money. According to the United Nations, global e-waste volumes grew 17% between 2014 and 2019, with over 53 million tons of e-waste in 2019.

High-tech companies are in a unique position to help reduce e-waste by designing products for reuse, resale, repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing, which Accenture and the United Nations study shows can boost operating profit by 16%.

Many technology giants already have successful recycling programs in place that encourage partner participation. In 2022, Accenture partner Cisco launched the Environmental Sustainability Specialization (ESS), a program to educate customers, promote product takeback and assist in the move to circular business models.

As many companies have proven, this can constitute a great opportunity to save money and create new revenue streams while reducing carbon footprints by avoiding single-use inputs and designing for refurbishment and longevity.

2. Selecting Cleaner Raw Materials

As the demand for more sustainable materials rises, more companies are starting to use cleaner minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt. Fortunately, materials suppliers have stepped up efforts to deliver eco-friendly solutions to enable companies to make this transition.

Accenture partner Solvay, a supplier of alternative materials, has been developing new solutions to reduce waste materials generated by semiconductor manufacturing. Its products are helping customers recycle polyvinylidene fluoride, a byproduct of chipmaking.

3. Adopting Greener Manufacturing Processes

Many manufacturing companies are making strides in reducing electricity consumption, recycling water and adopting greener manufacturing practices.

Accenture partner Lam Research invested in LED lighting processes and improvements to HVAC equipment such as air compressors. Likewise, companies such as Winbond are using a new low-temperature soldering (LTS) process to reduce the temperatures needed for the assembly of components. These lower temperatures can lead to faster manufacturing throughput while also lowering temperatures to reduce carbon emissions.

Leaders continue to adopt solutions capable of streamlining production processes, using digital tools and deploying more efficient supply chains to save energy and optimize logistics to reduce truck rolls, which can help lower carbon footprints.

Accenture partner Hitachi’s Lumada Manufacturing Insights is a perfect example, as it is helping manufacturers develop data-driven operations, increase supply chain visibility and enable smart factory solutions to improve productivity and lower asset downtime.

4. Designing More Power-Efficient Products

At this year’s CES, we saw many energy-efficient products come to life as companies introduced products focused on managing home energy usage, including battery packs, solar panels and EV chargers. Accenture partner Schneider Electric released the “Home” energy platform to monitor energy usage, manage backup power during an outage and connect to utility programs for savings on electricity bills.

The industry migration to the cloud has also helped significantly reduce global power consumption. Because the cloud supports many products at a time, it can more efficiently distribute resources among users. Companies like Accenture partner Google have made inroads in making their cloud services power efficient, with claims new data centers are twice as energy efficient as a typical enterprise data center—delivering five times as much computing power for the same amount of electrical power as five years ago.

5. Embedding Sustainability Into Supplier Selection And Management

As companies source new suppliers and optimize existing ones, they should embed sustainability in every step of the supply chain management process. This includes analyzing the supplier base to determine the biggest source of emissions and having data-driven conversations with suppliers to reduce emissions.

Digital tools such as digital twins can be used to map physical material flows to uncover sub-tier suppliers and risks. By proactively working with suppliers on an ongoing basis, high-tech companies can identify bottlenecks within the supply chain and help mitigate disruptive events while improving their own decarbonization performance.

Social Innovations Without Waste

While the industry has made great strides toward global sustainability, there is still much work to be done. With the value of global sustainability assets rising above $220 billion, it is increasingly evident that investing in sustainability is not just morally responsible but financially savvy.

Organizations must reduce massive surges in energy consumption, water usage and CO2 emissions and develop sustainable products and services to help customers in their own sustainability transformations. The transition to sustainability presents a tremendous revenue-generating opportunity for companies that act quickly to develop—and adopt—greener technologies.


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How is Climate Change Affecting MENA? Local Experts Weigh In


How is Climate Change Affecting MENA? Local Experts Weigh In each, in their respective area but in a similar way throughout the varying specifics of the MENA regions . . .


How is Climate Change Affecting MENA? Local Experts Weigh In

For Earth Day 2023, members of the Agents of Change Youth Fellowship answered this question: What is the biggest environmental or climate change related challenge facing your community today? Their responses reveal a pattern of vulnerability facing the MENA region.

Groundwater depletion in the West Bank

Climate change will affect most sectors of the economy in the Palestinian territories, especially the water sector, which will be among the most affected in terms of water availability and quality. Freshwater resources—surface and groundwater—will become more scarce due to decreasing precipitation rates. This will make it more difficult to replace groundwater during periods of high population growth, coinciding with the intensification of competition for water between Palestinian agriculture, Israeli settlements, and the industrial sector.

“High temperatures and excessive precipitation rates may threaten the quality of drinking water, given the limited treatment facilities.”

Less rainfall will also increase the cost and amount of energy needed to extract water. In addition, high temperatures and excessive precipitation rates may threaten the quality of drinking water, given the limited treatment facilities. Measurements of groundwater levels through a geological survey of some areas of the West Bank have observed that 45% of the sub-aquifers have decreased sharply and significantly, and this has led to the desiccation of 15% of the soils in the areas surrounding the decreasing aquifers.

This exacerbates the water demand crisis, which will have direct effects on the topology of the food network, which constitutes an important resource that supports the Palestinian economy, in addition to the fact that the West Bank is already suffering from a major water crisis. Climate change predictions for the Palestinian territories from high-resolution regional climate models show above-average global warming over this century in the range of 2.12-4.9°C (35.8-40.82°F) according to a realistic emissions scenario.

The impact of climate change on groundwater in the West Bank and the decrease in its quantities have led to a significant increase in the prices of agricultural products, especially those from agriculture that relies extensively on irrigation; 7% of farmers have left their lands due to the high cost of obtaining water.

Financing Climate Action in Egypt

Building climate resilience while coping with near-term crises is crucial, but neither can be achieved without adequate finance. Unfortunately, climate finance is not keeping up with climate change’s escalating impacts. Egypt is among the most susceptible countries to climate change due to its growing population concentrated in the densely populated Nile Delta. Egypt’s carbon emissions increased by 155% between 1990 and 2018, three times more than the global rate of 50%. Additionally, climate change is projected to cost Egypt between 2% and 6% of its GDP by 2060.

In response, the Egyptian government has developed a coherent policy agenda for climate action that is institutionally ahead of many of its MENA peers. The country has made significant strides in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, such as doubling its wind energy production, constructing desalination plants and flood control infrastructure, and launching the first green sovereign bond in the MENA region, worth $750 million and offering a 5.25% yield. The country pledged to cut emissions by 25% by 2030 in its revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which also encompasses various adaptation and mitigation projects. Yet, for these projects to be completed by 2030, $50 billion in financing is required.

“The lack of adequate financial resources remains Egypt’s main obstacle to responding to climate hazards.”

Unfortunately, the Egyptian pound suffered a half-value decline last year, making it the worst-performing currency in 2023. Even though the country receives the most significant proportion of climate finance in the MENA region (28%), the region hosts the least amount of climate finance globally, estimated at $16 billion annually, with financing needs estimated at $186 billion based on countries’ NDCs.

Deferring climate finance investment is not an option. The lack of adequate financial resources remains Egypt’s main obstacle to responding to climate hazards. Collaboration with the private sector, foreign direct investment, and international cooperation will open doors to alternative financial resources for the country’s green transition.

Decreasing Snowpack and Rainfall in Turkey

The most urgent climate-related challenge facing Turkey is elevated drought risk. As part of the Mediterranean Basin, a climate hot spot, Turkey will experience the consequences of climate change earlier and harsher than many other parts of the world, including more severe and prolonged droughts. These drought events typically occur concurrently with three trends: (1) a shrinking snowpack, hence reduced flows in Turkey’s rivers, (2) higher average temperatures, which also escalate extreme heat risk, and (3) less rainfall in southern regions, resulting in a drier climate and aridification.

These droughts can be debilitating for Turkey in several ways. In times of drought, crops need more watering due to less rainfall and hotter weather. Furthermore, elevated extreme heat risks threaten crop health, leading to reduced crop yield at best and complete crop loss at worst. More intense droughts mean more severe wildfires, particularly in the Mediterranean region. Forest vegetation dries up and becomes more flammable due to hotter weather and inadequate rainfall.

Many cities in Turkey are vulnerable since they mainly rely on captured rainfall and river flows to supply water for their residents. During droughts, cities have less water, and their ability to provide water for human consumption is imperiled. Turkey depends heavily on hydropower to meet the country’s electricity demand. But during droughts, hydropower output can decrease dramatically as the water levels in reservoirs drop. This results in more reliance on imported fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to compensate for the loss.

These impacts jeopardize everyone’s welfare in Turkey by endangering food, water, and energy security, as well as posing public health threats and harming Turkey’s precious ecosystems.

These impacts jeopardize everyone’s welfare in Turkey by endangering food, water, and energy security, as well as posing public health threats and harming Turkey’s precious ecosystems. Investing in water conservation and wastewater recycling, boosting funding for maintaining forest health, and implementing tighter groundwater management regulations could be good starting points.

Extreme Temperatures Adds Up in Warming Gulf Countries

The Middle East and the Arab region are already facing rising temperatures almost twice as quickly as the rest of the world, according to a report by the Cyprus Institute’s Climate and Atmosphere Research Center and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. The temperature during summer in the already very hot in MENA and will increase more than two times faster than the global average, making it one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the disastrous consequences of climate change.

In recent years, we have started to see the extreme weather impacts in a much more visible way, adding to the already existing temperature rise. According to the study, what makes the Arab region more susceptible to higher increases in temperatures than some other parts of the world are geographical features such as large expanses of desert and lower ground water levels. Extreme weather conditions such as the deadly flash floods in Fujairah in the UAE, flooding in Qatar, and flash floods in Oman are examples of the impacts affecting the Gulf region.

“When extreme weather and temperature are combined, the consequences are multiplied several fold–making populations in the Arab region more vulnerable.”

When extreme weather and temperature are combined, the consequences are multiplied severalfold–making populations in Arab region more vulnerable. In these challenging times, it is crucial for the world to come together and address the threat of climate change and help countries in the Arab Middle East to adapt. Regardless of the climate change scenario in the latest IPCC AR6 synthesis report, it will become reality soon or later: climate change will result in a significant deterioration of living conditions for people living in the Arab Middle East countries, and consequently, many people may have to leave the region due to rising temperatures.

Khalil Abu Allan is an Agents of Change Youth Fellow, and faculty member at Hebron University, West Bank, in the Department of Applied Geography.

Eslam A. Hassanein is an Agents of Change Youth Fellow, and is an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Politics and Economics- Beni Suef University- Egypt.

Gokce Sencan is an Agents of Change Youth Fellow, and a climate and water policy researcher based in California.

Neeshad Shafi is an Agents of Change Youth Fellow, and the Co-founder & Executive Director at the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar, a first registered youth lead non-profit association in the State of Qatar.

Photo Credit: In Al-Chibayish, Iraq, a Marsh Arab woman collects water in the wetlands of the Central Marshes of southern Iraq, courtesy of John Wreford/Shutterstock.com.

This article was originally published as part of the Viewpoints Series of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.



Building a better world: Transforming with sustainability & innovation


Heather Polinsky, Global President, Resilience

Our world today is faced with significant challenges. Less urban spaces for growing populations. Energy supply disruptions and increasing energy bills. Hotter summers and harsher winters. Rising sea levels in coastal zones and heightened drought conditions in other areas. With so many shared challenges, there are opportunities to overcome them if we remove the constraints that are holding us back. Are we standing in our own way?

The last five years have seen the dawn of a new reality for the design, engineering and consultancy industry. While the pandemic slowed down projects, impacting budgets and forecasted work in some industries; our sector saw the decades-long traditional business operating model pushed to evolve, leading to new revenue streams and subsequently, the demand for an evolving, highly skilled talent base.

And with fast-approaching net-zero targets and new policies and regulations around environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations, our industry is faced with increasing pressure to adopt new technologies and sustainable practices at pace with the transformation ahead.

We are at a critical juncture, and there are also huge market opportunities to thrive in tomorrow’s world. To truly change, global collaboration and integrated projects are the way forward. Practically this would mean moving beyond ‘time and materials’ contracts to explore more agile and attractive business models. We can’t do it alone.

Our efforts as designers, engineers, scientists and consultants to action transformative progress can only be fruitful if clients too are willing to evolve and incentivize change. It makes business sense too. Over the last five years, stock funds that were weighted towards companies with positive ESG scores have outperformed across global markets1. Inaction today will not only hurt the world, but also our collective ability – clients and consultants alike – to benefit from investing in tomorrow.

An evolving industry landscape

There has been some progress. From the increased adoption of technology and automation in projects, to shifts in consumer preferences for sustainable and socially conscious businesses and purchase decisions. While all this has led to changing expectations around types of services, it hasn’t yet shifted the dial far enough on ‘delivery’ mechanisms, how we are contracted to work and business partnership and incentive models to meet these trends. Therein lies the biggest opportunity for us to move the needle.

Digitalization – reshaping processes and solutions

According to PwC2, by 2030, up to 45% engineering activities could be automated using advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), likely leading to significant productivity gains and cost savings. The Economist’s World Ahead 2023 analysis unpicked ‘Mixed Reality’ as an important trend. Advanced language models too, can be particularly beneficial in consultancy work in identifying data patterns, and generating insights for informed recommendations and decision making3. Are we ready to unlock the full potential of fast-evolving developments like this?

Data analytics and innovative technologies can improve project delivery, providing opportunities for improved decision making, collaboration, communication, and greater accuracy. In cities, for example, implementing AI systems will reduce water waste and predict demand more accurately, with smart meter installations expected to grow 28% by 20264. At Arcadis, we are already seeing promising pilots in the City of Canton, Ohio. By integrating data sources and running AI models, we have developed digital twins that create a virtual model of the utility company’s water distribution system, helping them reduce water loss by analyzing data to identify leaks in real-time, significantly earlier than could previously have been found.

ESG considerations

Sustainability and ESG considerations have been driving forces for the transformation of various sectors. For example, as the demand for renewable energy increases aligned with net zero goals, engineering and design firms are increasingly advising on decarbonization strategies and projects related to solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy. The automotive industry is also undergoing a significant transformation as electric and autonomous vehicles become more prevalent. And the built environment sector is seeing a trend towards green buildings, retrofitting existing buildings and livable urban spaces.

An integrated project approach

Mega trends like climate adaptation and rapid urbanization are pushing businesses to realize that solutions to these problems cannot be achieved in isolation. For example, to solve decarbonization and reduce energy use, we are seeing much greater collaboration and integration between energy users across all sectors, including buildings, transport, and industry, with power producers and utility providers. Projects too are moving in a similar trend, with fast-changing regulatory, societal and market environments adding pressure. Clients are looking for partners who can work shoulder-to-shoulder with them through all stages of a project, from co-creating strategies through to implementation, making sense of the evolving landscape and the business case for investment. In the UK, for example, we are supporting Transport for North which covers cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds with their decarbonization strategy, providing them with confidence that they are future proofed as they look to act on climate change.

Shifting mindsets

All this is also leading to a shift in mindset – from focusing purely on siloed projects to wider solutions that integrate responses to water, energy and climate challenges. There’s a huge benefit in this integrated, systems-thinking approach. By 2050, the integration of sectors such as energy, transport, and buildings could result in cost savings of up to €200 billion per year in the European Union5 alone. And, from a socio-economic perspective, the integration of services such as water, wastewater, and climate resilience is key to achieving sustainable resilience in cities, posing a strong future business opportunity6, as demonstrated by the Wuhan Sponge City program.

While we have certainly transformed over the last few years, the question remains: are we moving fast enough? What practical steps can we take to adapt today so that we can continue thriving in the future?

The biggest opportunities of our time

Let’s be honest, the biggest needle movers of our time are sustainable practices, powered by innovation and digital tools that build resilience into our cities. As an industry, we have a significant opportunity to help mitigate the impacts of climate change through a focus on sustainable development and operations. However, with the IPCC warning that we are already falling behind, urgent action is needed to accelerate efforts. Projects need to have a more holistic, integrated approach, also considering the impact on society, particularly as challenges like climate change, water scarcity and energy affordability disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. This urgency requires immediate action from all stakeholders to create a more sustainable future for all. Considering nature and biodiversity, carbon emissions, and social impact in the planning and implementation of projects should be a given. Planning resilient cities will be key.

There is no single solution or organization that has all the answers. But collective working and partnering with other like-minded organizations can help the industry progress. For instance, digital disruptors bring to the table new technologies and a unique understanding into consumer buying behaviors and preferences. These present data and pain point insights which, if used effectively, will not only bring value at various stages of the project, but also help create better, more inclusive solutions for all. And we need to be bolder about the risks we take. New solutions like ChatGPT may seem intimidating, but if used effectively, can enhance processes and free up time for value added work. Working together and putting aside differences to achieve these common goals, supported by modern technologies, can help truly accelerate our industry’s transformation.

Transforming our industry for the future

How are we creating the right environment, business models and opportunities for the transformation needed?

Building a strong talent pool, into the future: By 2028, one-third of skilled workforce will retire at a faster rate than younger workers enter the field to replace them, leaving more than 3 million skilled trade jobs unfilled7. Our industry and clients are seeing the greatest workforce transition of our time – with capability availability, early retirement and gig working being areas of concern that we need to anticipate and be ready for. These pose both a challenge, and a prospect. While there’s loss of institutional knowledge, there’s also an opportunity to drive ground-up change and new ways of thinking. Focusing on an agile workplace with space to develop and upskill will be key in creating employer attractiveness and ensuring we have the right people working on the right projects. We too are seeing this transformation and are taking steps to stay ahead. Arcadis’ Global Collaboration Policy, for instance, removes barriers to collaboration, cross teams and cross borders. And, through Arcadis programs like Digital Base Camp, Sustain Abilities, the Energy Transition Academy and Quest, powered by the Lovinklaan Foundation, we are investing in a learning platform for people to upskill in sustainability and digital, and also, expand their skillsets and learn-on-the-job from other teams through funded experiential project work.

But that’s not enough. We need to relook at how our industry operates, and get more hands-on-deck to help lead our industry’s transition. Consultants and clients alike need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, taking measured risks with new ways of working and business models. To create space for sustainable practices, innovation and development, our traditional business model needs to shift from purely billable hours towards recognizing the value provided by employees. And leverage partnerships to go further. Finding partners to co-create with us can provide access to complementary skills, shared resources, and help us expand our market reach. Together, we can spark new ideas and solutions that may not have been possible otherwise, like our eCATS team in the Netherlands did when developing an innovative solution to transform redundant natural gas infrastructure for renewable energy storage.

The challenge ahead may seem daunting, but the time to act is now. We must be open to taking risks and testing new pilots and technologies, bold in our commitments around sustainability and willing to try new partnerships to accelerate our industry’s transition. Thriving in tomorrow’s world requires action today – no one organization has all the answers, but collectively, we can create solutions for a sustainable future.

Looking ahead, we’ve taken the best ideas, innovations and examples of integrated projects to shape six strategic pillars that can be considered to thrive in carbon neutral and prosperous cities of the future: Explore our perspective: ‘Charged up for Change




Investing in a Cooperative Future at the UN Water Conference

Photo 1: A man walks inside UN headquarters, ahead the UN Water Conference, on March 22, 2023, in New York City. Source: Leonardo Munoz / AFP

‘From satellites to sandbags’ Investing in a Cooperative Future at the UN Water Conference

Author: Matt Luna / Fanack Water.

Resilience, restoration, and security in water-climate adaptation were matched with investment strategy in side events of the 2023 UN Water Conference, held from March 22-24. In order to achieve sustainable approaches, scientific and financial experts worked together with NGOs to cross disciplines and introduce solutions that necessitate new forms of collaboration among actors in the room and far beyond.

People around the world are dealing with the consequences of more extreme weather, which is often more severe in fragile or developing countries. According to an article in Nature co-authored by Henk Ovink, the Netherlands Special Envoy for Water and a key organizer of the Water Conference, rising temperatures are also increasing the amount of moisture held in the atmosphere, resulting in drier summers in regions such as the Mediterranean. It is clear that previous weather patterns and economic models cannot be used to build future resilience.

In the Conference side event “Placing Water at the Heart of Climate Action through Locally-Led Adaptation” on March 23, participants discussed how to ensure that investment in climate resilience is accessible to local actors. According to UN Water, a quarter of the global population – 2 billion people – lacks access to safe drinking water, and water-related disasters endanger community health while disrupting food security and income-generating activities. According to the World Economic Forum, the MENA region is “one of the most water-scarce regions in the world,” and the World Bank estimates that climate-related water scarcity could cost the region up to 14% of its GDP over the next 30 years.

Early warning systems based on satellite earth observation data on weather events can save lives, particularly during flooding, but they must be implemented locally to be effective. This requires a shift away from business as usual in order to increase investment in communities. The COP 28 meeting in the UAE this November-December, as well as the meetings leading up to it, will provide an opportunity to strengthen agreement on new paths forward and what is required for implementation.

Human-caused degradation of natural ecosystems is further driving changes in water cycles, which disrupt society and increase people’s vulnerability. In the side event “Nature-based Solutions for Water & Peace” on March 24, the Weather Makers, an engineering company aimed at restoring water cycles, used the Sinai area of Egypt as an example of land restoration initiative. More vegetation leads to more rain, so converting forests to agricultural land can have a significant impact on regional rain patterns. Interdisciplinary solutions co-created by indigenous populations and industrial actors can help to reverse some of the land’s impact and disrupted weather patterns.

Photo 2: Nature-based Solutions for Water & Peace Session at UN Water Conference. Source: Matt Luna / Fanack Water

“It is possible to restore large scale ecosystems. People’s lives have been improved, and they were the agents of change. We have a deep responsibility to contribute to the future of people by restoring the hydrologic cycle,” said John D. Liu, an ecologist/filmmaker who is working with the Weather Makers and Ecosystem Restoration Camps.

This side event on nature-based solutions was co-organized by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). Laura Birkman, Head of the Climate and Security Program at HCSS, spoke about security-proofing nature-based solutions and climate adaptation by collaborating with the Water Peace and Security Partnership to identify “hotspot” areas of risk, which include North Sinai, SyriaIraq, and Iran‘s Mazandaran Province. This strategy includes the following steps: 1) analyzing, 2) anticipating, 3) mobilizing, and 4) mitigating violent conflict threats in areas characterized by resource scarcity, rural-urban migration, and social unrest. Panellist General Tom Middendorp (Ret.) of the Netherlands, an expert advisor for HCSS, said, “There is no adaptation without security. We should work with civil actors to build in a conflict-sensitive way and invest in future systems that are less burdensome on resources, so people will not need to migrate.”

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) hosted a side event on March 23rd called “Water Finance in the Mediterranean,” which discussed ways to improve the financial sustainability of water management. Mohammed Chtioui, Director of the Tensift River Basin Agency in Morocco, raised the issue of how to more effectively establish and manage public-private partnerships for investments throughout the Mediterranean, with water tariff amounts being a recurring issue in pricing and adjusting during the session. Mr. Chtioui said, “With increasing water scarcity, we need to look at demand management of water, and reuse of water is newest pillar.” Water Team Leader, OECD Environment Directorate, Xavier Leflaive, presented guidelines to help countries in the region, such as redirecting global water subsidies to better research the people in need, ensuring strong regulation for water supply, sanitation services, and tariffs, and enabling water finance supported by an assessment of necessary conditions.

John D. Liu received a warm applause in the side event when he summed up feelings in a number of the discussions across the 2023 UN Water Conference: “Rather than building more ruins for future archaeologists to dig through, we should restore nature.” People are living in camps all over the world to help restore ecosystems and hydrologic cycles. If we make this the foundation of our economic systems, we will progress as a species.” At COP28, all eyes will be on the actors in key sectors to see where commitments to innovative and ecocentric approaches can be translated into real, sustainable action.