Understand the state of play for CIWM’s Strategic Expert Group (SEG) on the climate emergency following the publication of Climate Concerns: Stakeholder Insights.
We need to act now to stop further climate change from happening. However, we also need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which we are experiencing now and is only going to get worse. The question is, what is the role of the waste sector in helping the whole of society to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and thereby achieving national and international net zero ambitions?
Consumption, from food to knick-knacks makes as much, if not greater contribution to GHG emissions than energy production, so reducing consumption and moving our world to a more circular economy model must be the priority to preserve a liveable planet for generations to come.
However, the circular economy is much more than end-of-pipe recycling and recovery, it’s fundamentally about consuming less, and making what we do produce last longer and go further. The combination of the circular economy and the decarbonisation of energy use and production will together move the world to a more sustainable, net zero future.
Below, we explore what climate change is, what has been done to tackle the climate emergency so far, and what decisions and actions need to be taken to address this challenge, and the role our sector can play in achieving a net zero future.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
The most obvious and common GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2) but there are many others, including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s). However, their global warming effects are not all the same and the table below illustrates the potential of the main ones.
|Industrial designation or common name
|GWP values for 100-year time horizon
A full list of global warming potentials (GWP) can be found at: Global-Warming-Potential-Values (ghgprotocol.org).
As you will see later, the main GHG’s emitted by end of pipe waste treatment and disposal are CO2 and CH4.
What is Climate Change?
Climate change is the long-term shift in average temperatures (global heating), which is reflected in changes to global weather patterns. Since the 1850s (the assumed start of the industrial revolution and the point at which consistent records started to be kept), humans have contributed to the release of previously stored carbon and other GHG’s into the atmosphere.
The accumulation of these gases is leading to global heating, causing more frequent and extreme weather events, rising sea levels, as well other changes to our ecosystems, such as biodiversity and habitat loss.
What has been done to tackle climate change so far?
The following timeline sets out what has happened between 1992 and 2019.
What is being done about it at a global level?
The huge scale of action needed to address climate change has been compounded over the last thirty years by the failure to materially reduce worldwide global GHG emissions. As developing nations improve their living standards towards those we take for granted in the UK and other advanced economies, global GHG emissions are set on an increasingly unsustainable course.
It is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) belief that, in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a liveable planet, global temperature increase must be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This ambition was subsequently adopted by 196 nations at COP21 in The Paris Agreement.
This is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, committing signatories to setting out plans known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to limit global warming to well below 2oC, preferably to 1.5oC, compared to pre-industrial levels. “Stabilising the climate” will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in GHG emissions and reaching net zero CO2 emissions.
It’s undeniable (the science is clear) that changes to our climate have happened since the industrial revolution and it’s unlikely that these changes will be reversable, at least not in the short to medium term, but every fraction of a degree that we can slow warming by will make a big difference to our ability to function and adapt in the future.
Therefore doing little or nothing are no longer options if we are to avoid the potentially catastrophic future that will result from over 2oC of warming. The Advanced Economies of the world need to help the Developing Economies to adapt, avoid mistakes made in the past, and accelerate the adoption of new technologies and practices that will help improve their living standards in ways that do not adversely impact climate change.
The UK government has gone further and faster than most. Since 1990, the UK has halved its GHG emissions, legislated to become Net Zero by 2050, and published a Net Zero Strategy, Build Back Greener, in 2021. This strategy sets out policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy, including Transport and Waste, to meet the UK’s Net Zero target by 2050. The section on Natural Resources, Waste and Fluorinated Gases contains commitments to reform the resources and waste system by moving towards a circular economy, improving resource efficiency, and achieving the near elimination of biodegradable waste to landfill. Indeed, one of the ‘Key Policies’ under this heading is:
To support our commitment to explore options for the near-elimination of biodegradable municipal waste to landfill from 2028, we are bringing forward £295 million of capital funding that will allow local authorities in England to prepare to implement free separate food waste collections for all households from 2025.
What is the resources and waste sector’s contribution to climate change?
There are a range of estimates that put the emissions currently attributed to activities of the UK resources and waste sector somewhere between 6% to 8% of the total UK GHG emissions (Figure 1).
These emissions have fallen significantly since 1990 (Figure 2) as the waste sector has transitioned residual waste disposal from landfill to modern Energy from Waste facilities (EfW) and achieved much higher levels of recycling. A move away from landfill as the primary disposal route for residual waste towards EfW, has led to a substantial fall in CH4 gas emissions from landfills, which has a much higher GWP than the CO2 generated by modern EfWs.
New UK policies currently being envisaged under the Resources and Waste Strategy and adoption of a circular economy, including packaging Extended Producer Responsibility (pEPR), Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), more consistently collected recyclates, and further bans and/or restrictions on the landfilling of bio-degradable waste, will further lessen the GHG contributions of the wastes managed by the resources and waste sector.
Our sector’s emissions are reported through two Government departments; emissions from energy production are reported by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) and other emissions, such as landfill emissions and fuel from moving waste, are reported by Defra. However, all government departments will need to embrace the potential of the circular economy in order to help the nation achieve its net zero ambitions.
Reductions achieved so far by the sector have meant that we were not a priority for the Government’s policy interventions. However, both the Climate Chance Committee (CCC) and Government recognise the significance of our sector and multiple actual and planned policy interventions are underway to direct us to further GHG reductions.
More can still be done to move waste up the hierarchy, however, and the UK CCC summary report for waste identified that increasing EfW capacity might increase future emissions and necessitate Carbon Capture & Storage (or use) (CCSU).
What can the UK resources and waste sector do to reduce global climate change?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation identifies that a shift to renewable energy sources could reduce global GHG emissions by 55%, but in order to tackle the harder to reduce remainder we must better manage the systems we use for goods and services, i.e., move from a linear (take, make and discard) economic system to a circular economic system.
This can be achieved by a myriad of actions, such as making goods more durable and therefore longer lasting and designing them to be easier to repair and/or upgrade and/or more recyclable at the end of their useful life.
The systems of resale and repair, and the collection systems and infrastructure needed to effectively recycle and recover these precious resources, also need to be established. However, the prevention of waste at source has the biggest potential for reduction, not only in carbon but also resource security.
Changing global consumption behaviour is an enormous challenge and will not be easy. However, behaviour change is something our sector is good at and our successful contribution to increasing recycling rates should not be overlooked.
We need to break this down into bite-sized chunks and not wait for world leaders to agree on what needs to be done. This is where CIWM and others can play a significant part in continuing to deliver what we do and planting the seeds of change.
Our sector is uniquely connected to every citizen, be they householder, employee, or employer, in the country. It is our operatives who collect their bins every week and, as we saw throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, this service is valued very highly.
Lots more things can now be done, like waste prevention, by supporting circular businesses, reuse, repair and recycling ourselves, as well as promoting the same to others. Targeting not only the traditional items but also those ranging from clothing to electrical items and all points in-between, we will begin to make inroads into GHG reductions and continue the journey towards a circular economy.
These actions are very transferrable and, with a little adaptation, could be done in any country, no matter whether they are advanced, emerging or developing economies. CIWM has promoted and continues to promote work elsewhere around the globe.
CIWM will play a significant part in promoting action through influencing policy change with the UK and devolved governments and adopting best practices of those working in the sector and its supply chain partners. Together, we will make a difference.
What do CIWM members need to help them to achieve this?
We have reached out to you, our members, and beyond to find out what you already know, what you need to know for the future, and what tools you would like us to provide to help you achieve this.
The results of this survey have been published and, based on this research, we have made the following recommendations to address these barriers and support the sector to adapt/mitigate for climate change:
- Clearly set out how the resources and waste management sector can support efforts to minimise climate change.
- Research/report/educate on the key risks to businesses in our sector due to climate change.
- Provide education, information, advice and guidance on the mitigations and adaptations which can reduce the impact or likelihood of these risks, with practical steps for businesses to take.
- Signpost further advice, guidance and support for members who are concerned about climate change and/or experiencing climate anxiety.
As a professional community and qualifications and training provider, we are uniquely placed to equip and mobilise our members to face the challenges ahead and provide you with the tools to begin to tackle the task of changing the way society consumes “stuff”.
What is the role of the CIWM Climate Emergency SEG?
The Climate Emergency SEG will focus on responding to members needs by bringing together other likeminded organisations and coordinate actions to provide the necessary scale of response. For waste and resource management in particular, this will involve representation from all types of wastes producers, handlers and facility operators, including, for example, food waste.
If you would like to get involved in our Climate Emergency Technical Community, or if you would simply like to know more about what CIWM is doing about Climate Change, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.