NGOs condemn waste incineration in open letter to European Commission

A group of more than 50 environmental, social justice and human rights NGOs have sent an open letter to the Commission Expert Group working on an EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy asking to keep waste incineration out of the scope of green finance.

An EfW facility in Lincoln

The letter, published on Monday (16 September), includes ten priorities for the taxonomy consultation, highlighting waste incineration as an activity that ‘undermines upper-tier activities of the waste hierarchy which are more protective of the climate’.

The EU taxonomy, which will inform future policy-making, identifies activities that can significantly contribute to climate change mitigation and will do no harm to environmental objectives. This comes as part of the EU’s efforts to meet the obligations set out in the Paris Agreement.

Waste incineration has been excluded from the list of activities, with the taxonomy stating that waste-to-energy causes harm to the advancement of waste prevention and recycling.

Amid the context of the EU taxonomy, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has published a policy briefing on the carbon intensity of energy-from-waste (EfW) processes, revealing that it is around twice as carbon intensive (580g CO2 equivalent per kWh) as the current EU average electricity grid intensity and significantly greater than energy produced through conventional fossil fuel sources such as gas (340g CO2 equivalent per kWh).

With 70 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerated across the EU in 2017, 40 million tonnes of fossil CO2 was released into the atmosphere – 118 per cent more than 1995 levels, according to the policy briefing.

The policy briefing also raises the issue of the high proportion of recyclables in residual waste that would otherwise be recycled or composted, and that the need for incinerators to have a constant flow of waste can hinder waste prevention efforts.

The European Commission has previously raised caution around waste incineration, warning that EfW can hamper with increases in recycling and reuse and could therefore damage the development of a circular economy.

‘Sending the wrong signal’

Janek Vahk, author of ZWE’s policy briefing, said: “The recent Energy Transition Outlook has called for extraordinary action by part of policymakers. Within ZWE’s network we feel quite strongly that the EU taxonomy would be sending the wrong signal to financial markets if it was to say that burning waste is an effective climate change strategy.

“Promoting waste to energy would make it impossible to facilitate ambitious emissions reduction in the energy sector that align with the Paris Agreement and genuinely seek to limit global average temperature increase to below 1.5°C.”

The UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), one of the letter’s signatories, has also published reports on the emissions produced by EfW, claiming that waste incinerators have failed to report the emissions of harmful particulate matter (PM) and nitrous oxide (NO), and that the UK’s 42 incinerators released nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017. These figures were contested by the EfW sector, however, with Nicholas Pollard, Group CEO of Cory Riverside Energy, describing the findings as ‘deeply flawed’.

Commenting on the ZWE policy briefing Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator of UKWIN, said: “UKWIN agrees with the report’s statement that ‘due to the progressive decarbonisation of the electricity supply the electricity generated by incineration will have an increasing negative impact on climate change impacts in the future.’ The UK should be looking to genuinely low carbon ways of generating energy, such as wind and solar.

“At the same time, we should be doing more to support the top tiers of the waste management hierarchy by reducing waste and by reusing – and by designing products to be reused.

“The report highlights the high proportion of recyclables in the ‘residual waste’ stream. It is disgraceful that we are burning these valuable resources.

“If we are serious about the environment – and about the climate emergency – the focus should be on eliminating residual waste and moving to a circular economy rather than continuing to convert material into vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions in exchange for inefficiently generating very little energy.”

You can read the letter to the European Commission on the ZWE website.

The Environmental Services Association, the trade body for the UK’s waste management sector, has been contacted for a response.

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