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The global trade of energy allows for the distribution of the world's collective energy resources and, therefore, an increase in energy access. However, this network of trade also generates a network of virtually traded resources that have been used to produce energy commodities. An integrated database of energy trade water footprints is necessary to capture interrelated energy and water concerns of a globalized economy,and is also motivated by current climate and population trends. Here, we quantify and present the virtual water embedded in energy trade across the globe from 2012 to 2018, building on previous water footprinting and energy virtual water trade studies to create an integrated database. We use data from the United Nations Comtrade database and combine several literature estimates of water consumption of energy commodities to generate the global virtual water trade network. Results include a comprehensive database of virtual water trade for energy at the country level, greatly expanding the literature availability on virtual water trade. The total volume of virtual water trade increased 35% from 157 km3 in 2012 to 211 km3 in 2018. The global trade of oil and fuelwood are consistent drivers of virtual water trade over time, whereas coal, hydrocarbons, and charcoal collectively contribute less than 4% of total virtual water trade between 2012 and 2018. Electricity, despite a less dense trade network constrained by infrastructure, contributes notably to virtual water trade, driven largely by water use for hydroelectricity. This study develops an integrated assessment of previous virtual water studies to estimate global virtual water trade of energy, creating a platform for future global studies.


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Environmental Research Letters