Climate change report recommends landfill ban for biodegradables

The UK should implement a ban on biodegradable waste being sent to landfill by 2025 and invest in low-carbon energy technologies such as anaerobic digestion if it is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The CCC advises UK governments on how to prepare for climate change. Its report, entitled ‘Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’, lays out what the UK must do if it is to drastically reduce its carbon emissions in line with its international climate change commitments. The report was requested by the UK Government following the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and the more recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that global temperature rises must be limited to no more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels in 12 years.

The Committee on Climate Change has called for urgent action to reduce the UK's carbon emissions.The CCC has recommended a UK-wide target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050 – the current target is an 80 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. Scotland should set its net-zero date at 2045, a target that the Scottish Government moved to implement this morning, while Wales should aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050, based on varying levels of capacity. It is estimated that the costs of achieving such a target would be 1-2 per cent of GDP, the same as the costs associated with an 80 per cent reduction target.

Released 10 years after the passing of the Climate Change Act, the CCC states: ‘Now is the right moment to set a more ambitious goal. Achieving a ‘net-zero’ target by the middle of the century is in line with the UK’s commitment under the Paris Agreement, the pact which the UK and the rest of the world signed in 2015 to curb dramatically the polluting gases that cause climate change.’

The report states that many of the policies and technologies the UK will need to implement already exist – though they must be strengthened and delivered urgently. These include:

  • A supply of low-carbon electricity
  • Efficient buildings and low-carbon heating
  • Electric vehicles
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and low-carbon hydrogen
  • Stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill
  • Phasing-out potent fluorinated gases
  • Increasing tree planting
  • Measures to reduce emissions on farms

Commenting on the report, Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC, said: “We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response. The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.”

Landfill ban for biodegradable waste

Of particular relevance to the waste and resources sector is the report’s recommendation of a ban on sending biodegradable waste to landfill by 2025. This, it is stated, would be supported by increasing recycling rates to 70 per cent across the whole of the UK by 2025 and reducing food waste ‘as far as possible’ – the report estimates that 70 per cent of the 10 million tonnes of food wasted every year after it leaves the farm is thrown away in households.

The report states that since the introduction of the landfill tax in 1996, which was designed to encourage alternative methods of disposal for waste (such as recycling), there has been a reduction of more than 75 per cent in biodegradable waste being sent to landfill.

Since 1990, emissions from waste have fallen by 69 per cent due to the diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill and increased capture of methane at landfill sites. It is estimated that a complete ban on biodegradable waste, supported by 70 per cent recycling rates, would reduce waste emissions to seven million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

A ban on sending biodegradable waste to landfill is already set to be introduced in Scotland on 1 January 2021, and is a key strand of the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan, published in 2010.

However, a recent report produced by Eunomia Research and Consulting on behalf of the Scottish Government, which considered the progress that has been made towards preparing for the ban, found that local authorities and waste management companies in Scotland were currently unprepared for the introduction of the ban.

The report found that the ban and insufficient preparation for its introduction will lead to a residual waste treatment capacity gap by 2035 of 1.01 million tonnes if Scotland meets all its recycling and waste prevention targets. Sending residual waste to England or continental Europe for disposal was put forward as a potential solution, but with a landfill ban now being recommended for England that route may become closed.

On a UK scale, the warnings over Scotland’s preparedness for its landfill ban should serve as a lesson that investment in infrastructure to deal with displaced waste will need to be made well in advance of a ban if the UK is to be able to adequately deal with its generated waste.

Positives for anaerobic digestion

Emphasis in the CCC report on a transition to low-carbon electricity generation and low-carbon heating sources has been welcomed by the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry, which should also benefit from the diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill.

AD sees biodegradable waste, such as food waste, treated in an anaerobic digester to break down the material in the absence of oxygen. The resulting biogas can be used as a renewable and low-carbon alternative fuel source. Fully decarbonising the electricity supply will require increasing the share of renewables and low-carbon power from around 50 per cent today to 95 per cent in 2050.

Commenting on the report, Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association, said: "The UK's AD industry fully supports the Committee on Climate Change's call for net zero emissions by 2050, which is a vital target to ensure we avoid the worst effects of climate change.

"By converting organic wastes and crops into renewable heat and power, clean transport fuel, and soil-restoring natural fertiliser, AD has already reduced the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by one per cent and has the potential to reduce them by as much as five per cent if the industry meets its full potential. Crucially, AD reduces emissions from hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as heat, transport, and agriculture, as well as from the power sector and from waste.

"As a technology-ready solution that can tackle climate change right across the economy, it's vital that government recognises and rewards the many benefits of AD so it can make the maximum contribution to decarbonisation at speed and scale.”

Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association, also welcomed the report and called for urgent action from the government to support AD and other renewable energy technologies, adding: “This report blazes a trail for the UK to assert itself as a leader in socially responsible new industries and the government should grab it with both hands.

“We strongly support the view of the Committee that the solution to net zero greenhouse gases by 2050 lies in the mass deployment of renewable technologies supported by robust, long-term and investible policies.

“Since the 80 per cent reduction target was set, renewables have continuously surpassed expectations technically and financially and this is reflected in the CCC’s recommendations. Governmental support schemes such as the Feed-in Tariff have helped technologies such as solar PV and wind become inexpensive and straightforward to build.

“A policy gap, however, now exists to bring forward new power generation technologies in the 2020’s. Direction is required from government in relation to heat and carbon capture and storage. In transport, more can be done to decarbonise the fuel mix, facilitate electric vehicle deployment, and ensure strategic charging infrastructure is delivered. Gas and electricity networks also need to be fully on board with this transition and their regulated profit base should reflect progress on decarbonisation.

“We hope that the response from government in the coming months fully embraces the ambition and the opportunity presented today.”

You can read the full CCC report, ‘Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’, on the CCC website.

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