UN Emissions Statistics Could Drive Poor Waste Management Practice
A new report, developed by Eunomia on behalf of Zero Waste Europe, highlights the important role that better waste management can play in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, which is obscured by current statistics.
One of the authors, Ann Ballinger, said:
“Our calculations make clear that if we manage waste in the way that the EU has been proposing, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of around 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030 – the same as the annual emissions of the Netherlands.”
The report, whose findings were presented today in Brussels, is critical of the way in which greenhouse gas emissions are reported to the UN. It highlights the fact that the emissions reported under the ‘Waste’ Section of the inventory can be highly misleading when one seeks to understand the extent to which better waste management can contribute to reducing climate change emissions. It states:
“The IPCC’s 5th Assessment displays pure confusion around the matter of waste management. On the one hand, it seems to berate countries for not using emissions reduction as the basis for improving waste management policy and practice. On the other, the same report seems limited by the scope of what is covered within the ‘waste’ section of inventories, failing dismally to highlight the massive potential for emissions reduction. This has to change if nations are to grasp the significance of better management of materials and wastes as a means of addressing this massive global problem.”
As a result, there is a risk that governments and international bodies may overlook the contribution that improved waste management can make to reducing emissions, when this should be one of the easier ways in which they can be cut.
The 5th Assessment’s way of measuring emissions from waste leads to a huge focus on getting biodegradable material out of landfill. While this is a desirable aim, it neglects the beneficial impacts of improving management of materials such as metals, plastics and glass, which don’t produce emissions when landfilled. It also neglects the important differences in the emissions impacts of different alternatives to landfill. The report draws attention to two main problems.
First, UN reporting does not clearly show emissions from incineration plants that generate energy. Eunomia’s Chairman, Dominic Hogg, explained:
“Because of the way in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asks for emissions to be reported, the ‘Waste’ Section excludes just about everything other than landfill where solid waste is concerned. If nations switch waste from landfill into incineration, then so long as the incineration plant generates energy, the substantial emissions are reported under the ‘Stationary Combustion’ Section.”
The report highlights that even as the EU’s reported emissions from landfilling have fallen, this is significantly offset by a rapid increase in incineration, with Eurostat data now indicating that 100 million tonnes of waste are now incinerated annually across the EU. This same pattern is now being replicated in other areas of the world, driven by a misperception that getting biodegradable waste out of landfill is the holy grail of emissions reduction in waste management.
Secondly, the reporting mechanism also understates the role of recycling and waste prevention in reducing emissions from waste. The savings achieved through these measures are not reported as savings under the Waste Section of the inventory, even though their potential contribution to emissions reduction is far greater than the impact of changing how unrecycled waste is managed.
Dr Hogg added:
“The way the UN measures climate change impacts has a significant impact on the choices that waste managers around the world are making. That’s why it’s important that the Waste Section of the Inventory reflects the whole climate change impact of waste, which would highlight the critical importance of recycling, not to mention, waste prevention.”
Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe’s Associate Director said:
“For far too long the climate impact of waste management has been overlooked. Now it’s clear that waste prevention, reuse and recycling are climate change solutions that need to be fully integrated into a low carbon economy. Both at the EU and international level, it is time to shift climate finance support to these climate-friendly options instead of waste incineration, which in fact contributes to climate change and displaces livelihoods of recyclers worldwide.”
Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Zero Waste France’s Advocacy Officer, said:
“With France hosting the COP21 in December, it is a real opportunity to raise decision makers’ awareness about the real impact of waste management on climate change and the extent to which Zero Waste strategies have to be put on the agenda.”
Françoise Bonnet, Secretary general of ACR+ said:
“Efficiency and smart waste management is key for a low carbon economy. Still, it is only the tip of the iceberg as a much bigger impact can be achieved through resource efficiency and adopting a life-cycle perspective”.