Our waterways are a natural choice for transport, energy and leisure

Richard Parry, Chief Executive, Canal & River Trust

Britain’s canals offer huge opportunities to help local councils and their communities on the challenging journey towards achieving the Government’s ‘net-zero’ carbon targets by 2040.

Originally constructed over 200 years ago to serve the transport needs of the Industrial Revolution, our inland waterway network is one of the finest examples of living, working industrial heritage in the world. And with its extensive ‘Blue/Green’ corridors, it’s ideally placed in our towns and cities to be at the forefront of the new ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ too.

The Canal & River Trust is a registered charity which cares for 2,000 miles (3,200km) of canals and navigable rivers in England and Wales and can work with councils on a wide variety of carbon-friendly projects, from urban cooling and ‘green’ energy to sustainable urban drainage and development of traffic-free transport routes.

More than 8.5 million people (nearly 15 percent of the population) live within 1km of one of our waterways. In urban areas, the percentage is often much higher. Due to their previous industrial use, many urban waterways run through heavily populated areas of deprivation and diversity, often with higher rates of ill-health and unemployment. The opportunity to use waterways to support the ‘levelling up’ agenda is immense.

During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, towpath usage in many urban residential areas increased massively as people went in search of local green spaces and nature for their daily exercise and mental health. No other UK organisation has 2,000 miles of freely accessible outdoor space, so close to so many people, in areas of most need.

With the right investment, our waterways and towpaths offer a fantastic sustainable transport network and an important ‘natural health service’ right across much of the country. The Trust has worked with many councils in recent years to transform muddy towpaths into all-weather surfaces, providing perfect off-road routes for walking and cycling for both commuting and recreation, and collaborated with developers and councils to provide active travel routes to support sustainable development.

No one would argue with the fact that climate change and the effects of extreme weather are presenting the world with some pressing challenges. Three of the UK’s five wettest winters on record have occurred in the past eight years, causing flood damage as intense storms follow in close succession, whilst record high temperatures, with long dry periods and droughts, have brought other devastating impacts. 

Although the great canal engineers of the industrial age could never have envisaged it, the readymade network of canals and river navigations in the hearts of our towns and cities is constantly evolving and adapting and can play a huge role in providing ‘net zero’ solutions and climate change mitigation:

Generating low carbon energy

Our waterways already support hydro schemes generating around 21MWh per year, the equivalent energy for around 10,000 homes, with the potential to create a further 17MWh of hydro power for adjacent buildings and developments, particularly those located near weirs and locks.

Heating and cooling

Water-sourced heat pumps have the potential to save large quantities of harmful CO2 entering the atmosphere, compared to the use of more traditional energy sources.

This new technology is already helping to heat and cool buildings at a number of large commercial sites such as GlaxoSmithKline’s canal-side headquarters in London, the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, the Mailbox shopping and media centre in Birmingham, York’s Guildhall, and Baltimore Wharf in London’s Docklands.  More than a quarter of a million waterside homes could benefit from the ‘green’ technology, saving well over one million tonnes of CO2 annually.

New homes, offices, hotels, datacentres, and other developments in appropriate waterside locations could all benefit from this new technology, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable drainage

Our waterways already accept over 2,500 drainage discharges, providing millions of pounds worth of drainage services and relieving the strain on overflowing urban surface water systems. Our network offers the opportunity for new sustainable urban drainage schemes to connect to our waterways to remove surplus surface water.

Urban cooling

Research shows that the presence of water can reduce the ‘urban heat island’ effect that threatens to make summers in big cities intolerable in the future. Our studies show that urban areas next to a canal are on average 1oC cooler than neighbouring districts.

Low carbon transport and tourism

Our waterways not only provide ideal off-road routes for walkers and cyclists, they’re also great for boats! Thousands of tonnes of freight are moved every year on our canals and rivers. Transporting goods by water can mean lower carbon emissions whilst also removing hundreds of vehicles from the roads. Urban waterways are also good locations to consider water taxis or water buses and unpowered canoes or paddle-boards.

With leisure boating providing a lower-carbon alternative to foreign trips, we now have more boats licensed on our canals than during the Industrial Revolution and boating businesses, hosted on UK waters, are worth nearly £1billion pa and represent more than 2,000 businesses and 30,000 jobs.

Water transfer and climate-safe routes for service infrastructure

The Trust provides water supplies, for example drinking water in Cheshire (care of the Llangollen Canal) and nearly half of all the drinking water in Bristol (via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal). We also host over 700km of data networks within our towpaths, along with other critical infrastructure of national importance, such as electricity cables and gas mains.

Biodiversity solution

The Trust can work with communities and local authorities through community adoptions and other initiatives to improve biodiversity and bring back declining wildlife into the heart of our urban landscapes.  Working together we can ‘unlock’ the full benefits – for people and nature.

For more information, visit: www.canalrivertrust.org.uk.