With Yorkshire Water today calling for a hosepipe ban to start in two weeks’ time, we can now add water restrictions to the growing list of climate change impacts – heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and rivers drying up – that are now part of the UK summer.
Neil Dewis, Yorkshire Water’s director of water, said, “Parts of Yorkshire have seen the lowest rainfall since our records began more than 130 years ago. The hot, dry, weather means that Yorkshire’s rivers are running low and our reservoirs are around 20% lower than we would expect for this time of year.”
Could this drought have been prevented?
Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, commented on social media that, “This crisis in our system was entirely predictable. The government and water companies should have anticipated and planned for it. In a country with plenty of rain outside of mid-summer, we should not need to rely on hosepipe bans to get us through the dry months”.
Climate scientist, Ed Hawkins, of University of Reading echoed the predictability of this drought, stating that this was not a ‘one-off’ event:
“It’s not just the summer – this is the 4th consecutive season of low or very low rainfall. And warmer temperatures cause more evaporation and soils to dry out faster, making the drought worse.”
The Independent reports Kathryn Brown, the director of climate change and evidence at The Wildlife Trusts as saying, “Government doesn’t have a plan at all for dealing with the effects on the natural environment from these drought conditions”.
What were the warnings?
As well as having the data from the last four years in order to create a plan, there seems to have been more political posturing than climate action. Only last month, the Climate Change Committee highlighted the urgent and immediate need to plan to mitigate “risks to soil health from increased flooding and drought”.
This is the first hosepipe ban that Yorkshire Water has called in 27 years. Yorkshire Water, like many water companies, had produced a drought plan where they asserted that “we also develop scenarios to represent events worse than those we have experienced previously to ensure we are as resilient as possible to future, more extreme events”. They have clear measures that they adopt, with customer communication, to reduce the demand on the service.
Although Yorkshire Water claim that “Our level of service has improved since 2001 through leakage reduction, grid extension and additional abstraction licences. Customers place a high value on the reliability of water supply, and we have the same level of service for all of our customers”, the leakage reported per property per day through 2020–2021, was 130 litres of water. With over five million customers, that would amount to approximately 650 million litres lost through leakage a day.
The BBC reported today that water companies lose approximately 3 billion litres of water a day through leakage.
Are councils as bad as water companies at missing climate opportunities?
North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC), although declaring a climate emergency in July of this year, has been criticised for its plan lacking in concrete detail. NYCC councillor Andy Brown told me:
“Like so many other councils, North Yorkshire is very good at grand announcements. When the Green group asked to see an actual costed plan with timescales and for a scrutiny committee to be set up, the ruling group blocked any discussion of the plan in full council”.
More locally, Harrogate Borough Council never declared a climate emergency at all, despite two motions, instead passing a motion for a much softer “this Council supports measures to address the climate emergency”.
Local strategies to reduce carbon emissions
The council in Harrogate has eight strategic themes as part of its carbon reduction strategy, and it is through this strategy plan that measures emerge to reduce emissions. The themes range from ‘domestic energy demand’, which includes retrofit housing, to ‘land use’, which includes tree planting. Other themes include council buildings and the Harrogate Convention Centre, as well as reducing emissions through operations and staff transport. One of their core strategic themes is sustainable transport, which focuses on improving the district’s electric vehicle infrastructure.
The council is keen to promote the roll out of electric vehicle charging points, with 34 spaces being created on council-owned property across Harrogate, Ripon, Pateley Bridge, Masham and Knaresborough. A council spokesperson told me that they were waiting for a funding bid to be approved, but that this has been delayed by the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles: “We always intended to get more than this through using the approved funding at match for central government funding. We have just had word that the NYCC bid we supported was meant to let us know ‘early August’.”
Cllr Keane Duncan, executive member for highways and transport, also commented on the funding bid, saying:
“We are currently developing plans to deliver charging points across the county so that more residents and visitors are able to choose electric vehicles and charge up conveniently.
“In the meantime, we continue to pursue funding opportunities through central government. We have recently submitted a bid to the government’s local electrical vehicle infrastructure fund, which will enable us to deliver around 70 chargers in deeply rural areas that would otherwise be left behind due to a lack of private investment.”
With Harrogate Borough Council being abolished in 2023, it is hoped that NYCC’s ultra-low emission vehicle strategy will continue to maintain the contract with Connected Kerb. The council will receive the money from residents charging cars, with any revenue raised being used to expand the network further. But this is all still uncertain at this point, as the transition between councils takes place.
Environmental impact of electric vehicles
As of July 2022, there were approximately 520,000 battery electric vehicles in the UK, out of a total 32.9 million cars. Globally there are around 16 million electric vehicles. The rise in popularity of electric vehicles prompts those critical of them to complain about the environmental impact of lithium mining – lithium being one of the components in electric vehicles.
Lithium is also a component in the six billion smartphones in the world, and the 16 million laptops and other household electronics. Yet there only appears to be criticism of the lithium needed for electric vehicle batteries, rather than for all goods. Between 1955 and 1980, 125,000 tonnes of lithium were mined globally, without the level of concern about the environmental impact of lithium mining, leaving people to conclude that these criticisms are not about the impact of mining, but as the last bastion of the fossil fuel car industry holding on.
We have opportunities to reduce the impact of the climate emergency
As we experience another heatwave this weekend, watching our rivers dry up and our gardens die, is it time to ask whether our local and national plans are enough? Rather than allowing fossil fuel companies to dictate terms, perhaps we should be the ones leading the way. Whether it’s EVs, or tree planting, or retrofitting of houses, ensuring that the infrastructure is effective from the beginning is crucial.
We don’t have the luxury any more of time to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
We have opportunities at a local council level to reduce the impact of the climate emergency, if we choose to implement them. We have opportunities at a national level to reduce the impact of the climate emergency.
If we chose to implement them.