Urban Water Systems: Drivers of Climate Change

Published at Saturday 07 November 2020

Induced climate change, largely associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, has the potential to become one of the most significant environmental changes caused by humans. It is widely recognised that urban water systems are highly vulnerable to induced climate change, with many temperature and rainfall related impacts directly impeding their operation (see, for example Howe et al., 2005). However, it is not so well understood that urban water systems contribute to climate change as a result of: (a) consumption of energy derived from carbon based fuels, (b) biochemical processes which directly generate fugitive GHGs, and (c) consumption of goods and services that involved energy consumption or the biochemical generation of fugitive GHGs at some upstream point. This nexus of climate change drivers and impacts associated with urban water systems results in the development of a feedback loop, within which the impacts of various future urban water management strategies are currently poorly understood. This paper presents the findings of an investigation of the GHG emissions associated with operating a case study urban water system located in Melbourne, Australia using a life cycle assessment approach. Importantly, and in contrast to most previous studies, the system boundary used throughout this investigation was expanded to holistically include all aspects of the urban water system. The outcomes of this case study analysis are informing the ongoing research project by ensuring the most critical urban water system configurations and components are targeted. Life cycle assessment (LCA) can be split into three broad categories, process based, economic input-output based and hybrid based (Suh and Huppes, 2005, Suh et al., 2004). The underlying principles of each approach are the same; the inputs, outputs and potential environmental impacts that should be allocated to a particular product or activity include the sum of those associated with pre-operation, operation and post-operation life cycle stages. LCA is formally recognised and defined by the AS/NZS ISO 14040 series of standards, and as such, is a widely accepted methodology for determining the environmental impacts associated with a product or service, such as the provision of water, wastewater and drainage services. 


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