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      The scarcity-weighted water footprint provides unreliable water sustainability scoring

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        a , * , b
      The Science of the Total Environment
      Elsevier
      LCA, Water use, Water stress, SDG6, Water efficiency, Water productivity

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          Abstract

          To evaluate the environmental sustainability of blue water use or the blue water footprint (WF) of a product, organisation, geographical entity or a diet, two well-established indicators are generally applied: water efficiency and blue water stress. In recent years, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) community has developed, used and promoted the indicator scarcity-weighted WF, which aims to grasp both blue water use and blue water stress in one indicator. This indicator is now recommended in an ISO document on water footprinting and many scholars have used associated scarcity-weighted water use indicators. However, questions on its physical meaning and its ability to correctly evaluate water sustainability have emerged. Here, we analyse for global irrigated wheat production to what extend the scarcity-weighted WF addresses blue water stress and water efficiency. We observe inconsistent results, as a significant proportion of unsustainably produced irrigated wheat has better scarcity-weighted WF scores as compared to sustainably produced irrigated wheat. Using the scarcity-weighted WF or scarcity-weighted water use for policy-making including product labelling, punishes some farmers producing their wheat in a water-sustainable way and promotes some farmers producing wheat unsustainably. Applying the scarcity-weighted WF indicator thereby is contraproductive in reaching the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.4 on reducing water stress. In line with the specifications of this SDG target, to evaluate the sustainability of blue water use or the blue WF, the two indicators water stress and water efficiency should be used separately, in a complementary way.

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          Highlights

          • We test the scarcity-weighted water footprint (S—W WF) on its physical meaning.

          • We use the established indicators blue water stress and water efficiency to do so.

          • For global irrigated wheat production the S—W WF provides unreliable scoring.

          • Unsustainably produced wheat is better ranked than sustainably produced wheat.

          • Using the S—W WF for decision-making is contraproductive for achieving SDG target 6.4.

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          Most cited references43

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          Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems

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            Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers

            Food's environmental impacts are created by millions of diverse producers. To identify solutions that are effective under this heterogeneity, we consolidated data covering five environmental indicators; 38,700 farms; and 1600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. Impact can vary 50-fold among producers of the same product, creating substantial mitigation opportunities. However, mitigation is complicated by trade-offs, multiple ways for producers to achieve low impacts, and interactions throughout the supply chain. Producers have limits on how far they can reduce impacts. Most strikingly, impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change. Cumulatively, our findings support an approach where producers monitor their own impacts, flexibly meet environmental targets by choosing from multiple practices, and communicate their impacts to consumers.
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              Four billion people facing severe water scarcity

              Global water scarcity assessment at a high spatial and temporal resolution, accounting for environmental flow requirements.
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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Journal
                Sci Total Environ
                Sci Total Environ
                The Science of the Total Environment
                Elsevier
                0048-9697
                1879-1026
                20 February 2021
                20 February 2021
                : 756
                : 143992
                Affiliations
                [a ]European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC), Ispra, Italy
                [b ]Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, United States
                Author notes
                [* ]Corresponding author. davy.vanham@ 123456ec.europa.eu
                Article
                S0048-9697(20)37523-9 143992
                10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143992
                7812373
                33302064
                91ec252a-7236-4a39-aa0e-3a3b50bb8edb
                © 2020 The Authors

                This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

                History
                : 2 October 2020
                : 29 October 2020
                : 15 November 2020
                Categories
                Article

                General environmental science
                lca,water use,water stress,sdg6,water efficiency,water productivity
                General environmental science
                lca, water use, water stress, sdg6, water efficiency, water productivity

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