Going round in circles

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

Waste is unlikely to feature high up the agenda at climate change conference COP21 this month because its impact on greenhouse gas emissions is under-reported – which means the waste and resources industry has a bigger environmental role to play on the global stage than the UN’s data suggest, writes David Burrows

In Paris, ministers and negotiators are meeting to thrash out a deal to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. A lot rests on COP21, but the French are up for it: diplomats in every part of the globe have been educated on the issues; the text has been slimmed down to under 30 pages; and an “atmosphere of confidence” has been promised.

The focus will be on energy and how to manage our addiction to fossil fuels.

In the EU, energy accounts for 60% of carbon dioxide emissions, while transport is responsible for 20%. Next come agriculture and industry, weighing in with 10% and 6.8% respectively. Waste, at a mere 3%, has often been an afterthought.

Indeed, within the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), showing what countries intend to do post-2020 as part of any new legally binding agreement in Paris, there is little room for resource management. “We’ve been helping a number of countries with their INDCs and, frankly, waste is not near the top of the agenda,” says Ricardo-AEA principal consultant Simon Gandy. “Don’t get me wrong, things like food waste reduction are really, really important but [I don’t think] they will figure significantly at COP21.”

All down to accounting

Part of the problem, says Gandy, comes down to accounting: the inventories each country submits have limitations, especially for a sector such as waste where the ripples of carbon abatement can be felt far and wide.

First, they only consider in-country emissions and, second, the focus is on product-based carbon reporting rather than consumption-based metrics.

So in the case of a banana grown in the Caribbean but thrown into landfill here, most of the product’s carbon footprint (from fertiliser use to transportation) won’t be accounted for in our emissions data.

Or, to take another example, the significant carbon benefit of using more recycled steel and less virgin material will be accounted for in the ‘industry’ inventory. In other words, the 3% figure bandied around is more than a little misleading. “It’s a tidy figure, [but we’ve spent] the last 10 years pointing out that the contribution our sector makes [to carbon emission abatement] is far and away above that,” says CIWM chief executive Steve Lee.

Gary Crawford, chair of the working group on waste management and climate change at the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) and vice president for international affairs at Veolia, agrees. He highlights how the consolidated emissions figures used by the UN “don’t capture what we are seeing on an international basis; for example, the carbon reduction benefits of recycling.

At Copenhagen [in 2009] we didn’t have a big enough voice though,” he admits.

While care has to be taken not to double-count carbon emissions or reductions, there seems little doubt that the waste and resources industry has a bigger role to play than the UN’s data suggest. Previous studies have shown that better waste management and prevention could save far more carbon than the sector currently emits – 150 to 200 million tonnes versus 100 million.

Digging for more information

New research by Eunomia for Zero Waste Europe, published just last month, delved a little deeper.

“We’ve found that although changing waste management practices can generate significant climate change benefits, the way it’s reported in inventories tends to obscure this,” explains Dominic Hogg, chairman at Eunomia and one of the report’s authors.

“Partly as a result, there’s far too much emphasis on the bottom layers of the waste hierarchy, where the climate change benefits from changes are relatively insignificant.”

The way in which Europe, for example, has traditionally determined the performance of waste management systems has been through the level of diversion from landfill. This doesn’t work if greenhouse gas reduction is the ultimate goal, Hogg explains.

“Consider two countries that both landfill nothing, yet one of them incinerates 75% of waste and the other recycles 75%. By the measure of landfill diversion they are performing equally, but where would you rather be? The benefit of moving up the hierarchy from landfill to incineration isn’t that big, but go from landfilling to recycling and there are considerable benefits.”

Hogg isn’t alone in challenging the status quo. Writing for RWW earlier this year, experts at Ricardo-AEA suggested that recycling percentages may be a “flawed approach” given that they are not a “true indicator” of environmental performance.

“The real problem with the recycling tables […] is that a local authority’s ranking simply does not reflect the true ‘environmental strength’ of its waste management services,” they wrote. “[…] it fails to account for the type of material recycled and reused or the residual disposal method being used. A better (and more accurate) reflection of ‘any environmental benefit’ associated with a service or solution is available if the tonnages are converted into global warming ‘potentials’.”

The team created the first full UK carbon league table for local authority waste management. The top three councils seem fairly well aligned, scoring in the top four in relation to carbon too. But that pattern doesn’t continue; the table quickly unravels to show some councils shooting more than 340 places up the table if it were based on carbon, and others plummeting from near the top to the lower reaches of the performance listings.

Contributing factors

“High recycling levels do not determine overall carbon performance and it depends first on residual treatment route and, second, on the materials that are targeted for recycling,” they noted. For example, Epping Forest’s carbon impact from recycling is -431kg of CO2 per tonne, based on a 58% recycling rate; while Sheffield’s is -710kg of CO2 per tonne from only a 28% recycling rate.

The UK’s Courtauld Commitment has already gone down this route, shifting away from food packaging tonnage targets to reductions in carbon dioxide.

Food is certainly a topic that will feature in the discussions in Paris – the UN puts agriculture emissions at 10% of the global total, but again this figure may well underplay the importance of changing diets and, of course, wasting less food.

WWF has calculated that around a fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gases can be attributed to what we put on our plates – placing food on a par with energy and transport. Figures on a global level are harder to come by, but what we do know is that, of the four billion tonnes of food produced, between 1.2 and two billion tonnes (30-50%) is not eaten. That’s a hefty carbon impact, an incredibly poor use of resources and a humanitarian catastrophe.

Eunomia’s report offers further insight. Recycle a tonne of food waste through anaerobic digestion or composting and you’ll save a shade over 2.5 tonnes of CO2. Prevent a tonne of waste in the first place and the CO2 saving rockets to almost four tonnes. Looking again at the example of the banana grown overseas and wasted here in the UK, the simplicity of the UN’s system is further undermined.

Eunomia notes: “If the emissions associated with food production are three tonnes per tonne of food consumed, then there is zero effect on [the UK] inventory if the production avoided is overseas. Only where the avoided production is domestic production, and where the domestic producer cannot maintain production (by, for example, increasing sales of product overseas), does the prevention effect register in the national inventory.”

The report – The Potential Contribution of Waste Management to a Low Carbon Economy – raises some critical issues.

But start thinking about greenhouse gases, life cycles and responsibilities and it’s easy to end up going round in circles. With very little time to strike a deal that every country on the planet agrees with, it’s hardly surprising that the UN is avoiding some of the ‘devils in the detail’ – not least given the risk of double-counting emissions.

Accurate measurement

CIWM’s Lee says the approach being taken isn’t necessarily a problem. “One of the hardest things for us to measure is the value-added services we offer. If we help manufacturers become more resource-efficient then they [not us] will report it.

Quite a lot of people in the sector understand our contribution is way beyond the 3% [but] we need to be grown up about this because we’re all in it together.”

The waste sector’s contribution to preventing climate change could even increase as the population balloons. It’s no secret that, in developing countries and those considered ‘in transition’, the waste management systems have struggled to keep pace with economic growth (see October’s RWW, ‘Wasted opportunity’, p22). This offers an opportunity for the UK (and other developed nations) to provide the infrastructure required to limit emissions from waste “without any of the pains we’ve experienced in the past 20 years”, says Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Where to pitch the development is debatable. ISWA’s Crawford feels that it will be difficult for developing nations to “leapfrog” up the hierarchy, but that could change as the EU, for example, gets to grips with the notion of the circular economy.

A new package of measures is expected around the same time as COP21; this could, perhaps more than anything agreed in Paris, fuel the waste and resource sector’s role in carbon abatement.

“Leakage”, as Eunomia’s Hogg, puts it, will be reduced as re-use, re-manufacturing, repair and, ultimately, prevention come to the fore if the promise of a “more ambitious” regulatory package is realised.

Carbon intensive

In line with this new way of thinking, energy systems will also (hopefully) be rapidly decarbonised. However, as reliance on fossil fuels ebbs away and COP21’s legally binding global emissions reduction targets and action plans (again, hopefully) kick in, energy from waste could become one of the most carbon-intensive energy production systems available.

“It’s disturbing that one of the first moves being made by some countries with limited waste management infrastructure is from landfill to incineration,” Hogg says. He notes again the greenhouse gas benefits of moving away from the bottom rungs of the waste hierarchy, as well as the recent nosedive in costs of other green energy technologies (particularly solar). “With that in mind, investing in incineration looks like an expensive way of achieving limited – if any – benefit,” he explains. “The investment should be focused on those areas delivering the greater benefits.”

Investment in waste infrastructure will be a problem, regardless.The finance package, offered to poorer nations to help them mitigate greenhouse gases through renewable energy, for instance, is a potential deal-breaker in Paris. Governments from rich countries don’t want to foot the entire $100 billion-plus (£65 billion) bill from the public purse – they want most of it to come from the private sector and the World Bank.

The figure was agreed in Copenhagen in 2009, but the World Bank’s vice president and special envoy for climate change told The Guardian recently that she believed it had been “picked out of the air” in an attempt to trigger a last-minute deal. “I’m not sure that an abstract number like $100 billion is helpful,” said Rachel Kyte. Some might say the same argument could be applied to the 3% figure that’s long been tagged to the waste sector as its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

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