Waste emissions are misreported says Eunomia

Better waste management in the EU would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 200 million tonnes a year, according to a new Eunomia Research & Consulting report, but this is obscured by current statistics reporting.

The report, ‘The Potential Contribution of Waste Management to a Low Carbon Economy’, has been developed by Eunomia on behalf of Zero Waste Europe, Zero Waste France and sustainable management network ACR+. Findings from the report were due to be presented at an event in Brussels today (24 November), but after a last minute cancellation due to the heightened alert level in the Belgian capital, the event has been postponed until 12 January.

It highlights the role that better waste management can play in reducing emissions, concluding that if waste were to be managed in a way set out in the report, EU emissions of greenhouse gas could be cut by around 200 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year by 2030, the same as the current annual emissions of the Netherlands.

But, according to Eunomia, the ways in which greenhouse has emissions are reported to the United Nations (UN) provide misleading information. It says that the ‘Waste’ section of the UN’s emissions inventory creates ‘pure confusion’ as it first ‘berate[s] countries for not using emissions reduction as the basis for improving waste management policy and practice’ while then ‘failing dismally to highlight the massive potential for emissions reduction’.

As a result, the report suggests that there is a risk that governments and international bodies may overlook the contribution that improved waste management can make to reducing emissions, when it says that this is one of the simplest ways for them to be cut.

The report concludes: ‘This has to change if nations are to grasp the significance of better management of materials and wastes as a means of addressing this massive global problem.’

Issues with waste emissions reporting

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th Assessment, an update on knowledge on the scientific, technical and socio-economic aspects of climate change, was finalised in 2014 following four years of development. Eunomia suggests that the report’s way of measuring emissions from waste leads to a huge focus on getting biodegradable material out of landfill.

Waste emissions are misreported says Eunomia
The front page of the 'The Potential Contribution of Waste Management to a Low Carbon Economy' report
The report asserts that this neglects the beneficial impacts of improving management of materials such as metals, plastics and glass, which don’t produce emissions when landfilled. It also fails to show the differences in the emissions impacts of alternatives to landfill.

Two main problems with this reporting of waste emissions are highlighted in the report.

The first is that emissions from incineration plants that generate energy are not clearly shown. Instead, if a nation switches waste from landfill into incineration, emissions from incinerators that generate energy are reported under the ‘Stationary Combustion’ section rather than ‘Waste’.

The report highlights that even as the EU’s reported emissions from landfill have fallen, this is significantly offset by a rapid increase in incineration, with Eurostat data indicating that 100 million tonnes of waste are incinerated annually across the EU. Eunomia suggests that the misperception that getting biodegradable waste out of landfill is the absolute priority for reducing emissions is leading to this pattern being replicated across the world.

Second on the report’s list of problems is that the reporting mechanism understates the role of recycling and waste prevention in reducing emissions from waste. Savings achieved through these measures are not reported as savings under the ‘Waste’ section of the inventory, though their potential contribution to emissions reduction is considered greater than the impact of changing how waste that is not recycled is managed.

‘Critical importance’ of recycling being overlooked

Eunomia Chairman Dominic Hogg, said: “The way the UN measures climate change impacts has a significant impact on the choices that waste managers around the world are making. That’s why it’s important that the ‘Waste’ section of the inventory reflects the whole climate change impact of waste, which would highlight the critical importance of recycling, not to mention waste prevention.”

Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe’s Associate Director, added: “For far too long the climate impact of waste management has been overlooked. Now it’s clear that waste prevention, reuse and recycling are climate change solutions that need to be fully integrated into a low carbon economy.

“Both at the EU and international level, it is time to shift climate finance support to these climate-friendly options instead of waste incineration, which in fact contributes to climate change and displaces livelihoods of recyclers worldwide.”

Report aiming to raise awareness of waste impact ahead of COP21

The report has been released ahead of the COP21 conference in Paris (30 November – 11 December). Representatives from governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and civil society will attend the event, which aims to produce a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change.

Regarding the timing of the report, Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Zero Waste France’s Advocacy Officer, said: “With France hosting the COP21 in December, it is a real opportunity to raise decision makers’ awareness about the real impact of waste management on climate change and the extent to which zero waste strategies have to be put on the agenda.”

 ‘The Potential Contribution of Waste Management to a Low Carbon Economy’ report can be downloaded for free from Zero Waste Europe’s website.