Scope 3 emissions: society’s dirty emissions secret


Neil Grundon, Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says the need to measure and manage Scope 3 emissions ahead of the long-awaited UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will inevitably push up prices – but will it make a difference to those creating what he calls society’s dirty secrets?

We normally blame the dog. A post-Sunday lunch film usually elicits the same response, as a chorus of voices in disgust chastise poor Hamish for fouling the air. Hamish, a rather sensitive soul for a Westie then traipses out of the room, head bowed, full of shame.

If anyone was looking for a more perfect metaphor for Scope 3 emissions, it would be hard to find a better one than Hamish. Banished from his pack and out into the kitchen, to spend the rest of the evening staring out into the garden waiting for cats.

There is simply no escaping the carbon element of almost everything we use, yet Scope 3 emissions are rarely reported.

Much like Hamish’s indiscretions, Scope 3 emissions are society’s dirty secret. Often hidden and (in some cases) literally wrapped up as a “bag for life” or a “reusable cup”, we know that eventually, these items will end up in an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility. 

Where does the customer think their bag for life eventually goes when its shopping days are done? They probably don’t think about it at all. And that’s my point.

End consumers know nothing about Scope 3 emissions. They don’t know that by choosing a fancy Espresso cartridge over a good old (fully recyclable) glass jar they are adding to the emissions that come out of every EfW.

It’s not just consumers. Almost every manufacturer who makes goods will do so using fossil fuels – even something as simple as a sweet packet generates fossil fuel emissions because of the energy that goes into making that packet.

There is simply no escaping the carbon element of almost everything we use, yet Scope 3 emissions are rarely reported or discussed. Most corporate reports cover Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions because they are a direct impact on the business, Scope 3 less so.

Despite best efforts by some campaigners, politicians seem strangely reluctant to reveal their personal carbon footprints. We all know Boris recently rushed back from his Caribbean sojourn (a fair few emissions there), and I’d love to hear if Jeremy Corbyn ever swops Cuba for Catalonia … or does he just get sent to Coventry?

Joking aside, if these emissions are never measured or reported, then what are we supposed to do with them and how can we ever move towards a net zero emissions target?

After all, surely data is everything on climate change.

The eventual introduction of the UK ETS is slowly moving ahead and, by putting a price on carbon, it is hoped businesses will be encouraged to invest in emissions reduction technology.

I suspect that some will prefer to take the option of paying to trade their emissions allowances instead of making changes in their own backyard which, to me, feels almost like giving them a licence to pollute and still leaves us (the waste industry) to pick up the pieces. However, we have to start somewhere. 

Unlike the pre-Brexit EU ETS which saw an exemption for EfWs, the UK Government’s latest ETS consultation proposes that emissions from waste incineration plants will be included.

This means we will be asked to reduce emissions and adopt decarbonisation technologies and practices – all of which come at a price.

We all know you can’t manage what you can’t measure and in 2023, at the joint venture Lakeside* Energy from Waste facility adjacent to our Colnbrook operation, a new system will be introduced to enable continuous monitoring of biogenic CO2 emissions.

This is great news as for the first time we will learn exactly the percentage of biogenic emissions v fossil fuel emissions, instead of relying on the arbitrary industry average of a 50-50 split between the two.

It will take some considerable time – probably 2026 – before the data is robust enough to start to precipitate change, but it will give us the ability to understand the impact of Scope 3 emissions. In due course, we must then be allowed to pass on those Scope 3 management costs to the polluters who are creating them.

What it will give us are indisputable facts that will prove my point that Scope 3 emissions have been swept under the carpet for far too long.

As a waste management services company (note the emphasis on waste management) we are primarily a business that helps society to dispose of its waste. That is what they pay us for.

I sometimes feel that we allow all of society’s ills to be dumped on us, literally shouldering the blame for other peoples’ mess. Whatever the consumer market throws at us next, we’re always the ones that have to figure out how to dispose of them.

To eventually have the evidence to persuade manufacturers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels; to use more organic materials such as wood, food, plants and paper where CO2 is included as part of a natural cycle; rather than continue to rely on coal, oil and plastics with their embedded fossil carbon.

This investment in Post Combustion Technology doesn’t come cheap and we know businesses and councils will always want the best price when it comes to their waste management.

So when they ask why their waste bills are rising, I say it’s because they need to better understand what they are paying for – which is someone else’s indiscretions.

If there was more transparency and honesty around Scope 3, and the waste industry was to be paid for managing these hidden emissions, then what a difference it could make. Better minds than mine will have to work out the numbers, but there’s no doubt it would be a big step forward.

What it will give us are indisputable facts that will prove my point that Scope 3 emissions have been swept under the carpet for far too long.

And if you’re in any doubt, just ask Hamish – like our industry, he gets the blame far too often. Perhaps we need to fit him with a mini-monitoring emissions system too…

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