Waste incineration across Europe and the UK: profit at the expense of climate

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Waste to landfill has decreased in the UK over the last two decades, but the number of waste incinerators across the EU is growing [Tee Cee / Flickr]

The EU and the UK must bring waste incineration plants within the scope of emissions trading schemes (ETS) if they are to achieve net zero-emissions and comply with the Paris Agreement, writes Georgia Elliott-Smith.

Georgia Elliott-Smith is a sustainability consultant leading a legal challenge of the UK government’s decision to exclude waste incinerators from its post-Brexit carbon emissions trading scheme, a case that could set a European precedent.

As an environmental engineer for over 20 years, I have fought a long and largely unsuccessful battle to reduce waste in the construction sector.

In recent years, fighting to prevent expansion of an incinerator near my home in Edmonton, a district in North London, I found that there has been a startling growth in incineration in recent years.

Since the introduction of the landfill tax in 1996, waste to landfill in the UK has declined from over 90% in 1993 to less than 10% today. It has been a brilliantly successful fiscal instrument.

Average recycling rates across the UK increased until 2010 when they slowed and have since failed to exceed 40%. However, incineration has increased sharply from 15% in 2010 to over 45% today and is growing quickly.

In the last three years, recycling and composting rates have started to fall, despite the fact that the proportion of recyclable plastic, fabric and packaging in our bins has greatly increased. For all the talk of a circular economy, the reality is slipping ever further away.

As I write, there are close to 500 incinerators in Europe. Last year, these incinerators created 52Mt of fossil CO2 – that’s more than the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Portugal.

Then consider that, based on the number of incinerators currently seeking planning consent, the European incineration capacity could easily reach 600 in the next few years.

We are in the grip of incineration insanity. But why?

It’s no surprise that companies don’t make money from waste reduction, but there is plenty of profit from incineration. Unlike landfill, incineration operators pay no tax either as a waste disposal route or as major CO2 emitters, unlike fossil fuel power stations burning coal or gas.

There are also no carbon emissions targets or requirements to reduce CO2 emissions over time.

In the UK, businesses and public services like schools must pay for collection of dry mixed recycling and most households also pay for collection of green waste. In addition, local authority homes and flats often have no recycling bins.

Rules differ across county lines, there is little waste education and no penalties for failing to segregate. The lack of incineration tax and the ability of energy-from-waste operators to be paid both for the “fuel” they burn and the energy they produce allows them to undercut recycling and offer cheap disposal to businesses and local authorities.

So when times are tough, recycling gets cut.

The polluter pays principle clearly isn’t working, so I started investigating the mechanisms that prevent sustainable waste management. I didn’t have to look far.

On 1 June, the UK government published “The Future of UK Carbon Pricing” – a document setting out a new UK carbon ETS as the mechanism for measuring and reducing our national CO2 emissions post-Brexit.

However, waste incineration is excluded from the scheme, leaving a major polluter outside any carbon regulation mechanism and going against our Paris Agreement commitments.

Therefore, on 1 September, my legal team submitted papers to the High Court challenging the UK government over the policy, demanding that incineration is brought within the scope of the UK ETS. A public hearing will take place on 1 December.

In Europe, to ensure the EU’s net-zero emissions goal by 2050, the Commission will have to rewrite all relevant environmental policies, including the European ETS.

Last Thursday, “The Initial Impact Assessment for the revision of EU ETS” was finally released by the Commission aiming to propose extending the ETS to the new sectors of the economy.

Currently, the EU ETS includes aviation, manufacturing and fossil fuel power generation but, despite being major CO2 emitters enjoying enormous growth, municipal and hazardous waste incinerators are excluded from the scheme.

This leaves incinerators operating in the shadows, applying creative carbon accounting practices to report their emissions, pouring out CO2 at will with no “carrot or stick” in place to reduce greenhouse gases.

The upcoming revision of EU ETS is an opportunity to correct the past failure and uphold our Paris Agreement commitments.

By including incinerator operators in both the UK and the EU ETS, they will be forced into a regime where emissions are accurately reported, managed, taxed and reduced over time. The economics will promote investment in alternatives such as recycling and reuse, investment in carbon capture and storage technology and, ideally, create a case for waste reduction.

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