Stepping up to the carbon challenge

Measuring the carbon footprint of waste and recycling activities is not easy, so how can the industry be sure it is meeting its commitments? Maxine Perella reports

This month sees the planet’s climate change hopes rest on COP15. As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to try and hammer out a bigger and bolder successor to the outdated Kyoto protocol, closer to home those in the waste industry gathered in London recently to look at how they could meet their own carbon commitments.

At a London Remade network meeting, chief executive Daniel Silverstone told delegates that while globally the impacts of waste management account for only 3% of carbon emissions – and in the UK, 4% of greenhouse gases are traced to landfill methane emissions – neither of these figures take into account the carbon impacts of logistics, supply chains, manufacturing processes or the global trading of recyclables associated with waste management.

“When we factor in these elements we can see how significant our own professional contributions in this room will be in rising to the challenge of climate change,” he said.

Taking action on targets

The UK’s Climate Change Act came into effect last year, setting targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels). These targets will be driven by binding carbon budgets to cap the total quantity of emissions emitted in the UK over a specified time. Each carbon budget covers a five-year period, and first three carbon budgets will run from 2008-12, 2013-17 and 2018-22.

Alexia Davidson, agriculture and waste relationship manager at DECC, spoke about the budgets and their implementation in relation to the waste sector. She said that all government departments with a responsibility for waste – including Defra, DECC, BIS, CLG and DfT – would be setting up a working group to decide how to achieve reductions in emissions.

“The working groups have been set up to manage their waste elements. We are now going to sit down and work out how we deliver the UK carbon transition plan – working up individual policy options by liaising with stakeholders and delivery partners, agreeing a set of indicators to monitor and measure progress,” she said.

Defra to set out its delivery plan

As the lead department for waste, Defra will demonstrate how it intends to achieve emissions reductions as part of a departmental carbon reduction delivery plan next Spring. For waste, Davidson said the two main policies to reduce carbon were landfill diversion and the landfill tax escalator.

“We are aiming to reduce the amount of waste produced and then reduce the percentage to landfill, capturing more of the methane from existing landfill and providing support for anaerobic digestion. We hope this will lead to a further 1M tonne of CO2 equivalent savings per year by 2020.”

Dirk Hazell, chief executive of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), examined the challenges of measuring carbon in delivering waste contracts. He cited a report from the Government’s Committee on Climate Change, which suggested the waste management sector could reduce its annual emissions by 5M tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2020.

“To realise the waste industry’s further contributions to greenhouse gas reductions will require the application of appropriate incentives throughout the economy to help to bring economic and environmental outcomes in line with each other,” he said, adding that this was already happening through various initiatives designed to give “economic agents responsibility for managing their carbon more efficiently”.

Complex picture for footprint analysis

Taking the commercial sector first, Hazell said that commercial waste producers need to know what the carbon footprint associated with the management of their waste is, but “that isn’t a simple task because waste management involves a series of different processes, from collection, bulking and transport and onto treatment and disposal”.

“Waste producers should know when they talk to waste managers that their carbon footprint is being estimated in a manner that is robust, clear and consistent,” he urged. To help with this, the ESA has developed its own system for carbon reporting, based on a waste sector protocol that originated in France. The ESA hopes the protocol will receive endorsement from FEAD, the trade body for the european waste sector, and go on to form the basis of an internationally agreed standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions across all waste management activities.

Hazell said that the ESA’s seven largest members have already reported their 2008 emissions under the protocol, but emphasised that carbon activity in waste was a complicated picture. “Any future policies aimed at influencing the management of waste carbon will need to consider the wider context of the emission savings made by other sectors, essentially power and reprocessing, which are facilitated by the activities of the waste management industry itself.”

He urged for incentives to be built into commercial contracts. “If there is a pricing for carbon, then individual producers and managers of waste would be able to negotiate appropriate terms on which they could agree to manage waste on the basis of emission reduction.”

While referring to the merits of WRATE, the waste and resources assessment tool for the environment which forms part of the evaluation criteria used by local authorities to assess private sector bids for municipal waste contracts, Hazell told delegates there was “a feeling in our sector that WRATE is an inappropriate tool for decision-making on specific projects.”

He added: “The default assumptions in the WRATE model are too generic to capture the unique aspects of individual products. However, using bespoke models does open up a range of verification issues, so there is a balance to be struck.”

Maxine Perella is editor of LAWR

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