End-of-life waste planning can cut emissions the COP28 climate summit can’t curb

4 January 2024 By 0

Human-made emissions are a problem internationally and locally. On a world scale, carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are pushing global warming and climate change ever higher. On our own doorsteps, they create pollution and health hazards.

But there is a common link that I would like to explore – which is that in theory at least we can intervene and mitigate their impacts in both cases.

Globally, this means making a new massive international effort to stop further atmospheric warming by cutting carbon and its sister gases in line with the 2050 net-zero emissions target.

Locally, after taking basic steps to ensure all plant and machinery is running efficiently – with ‘dirty’ fossil-fuels replaced by ‘clean’ renewable energy sources wherever possible – we can now examine a further hierarchy of end-of-life (EOL) options to minimise GHG impacts.

As I explain in a moment, the limited progress in curbing runaway GHG emissions made by 198 nations at the December 2023 UN COP28 climate summit means it is now more important than ever to look for millions of local EOL-type solutions.

Top-down attempts to reach net-zero

At the end of 2023, world leaders came together in Dubai (www.cop28.com/en/) to find a way of slashing soaring fossil-fuel emissions that will now almost certainly push Earth surface temperatures above the 1.50C to 2.00C maximum rise science suggests is relatively safe for the environment.

Since the net-zero emissions target was set in the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the focus has been on carbon-cutting steps by individual nations – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

But as the first-ever net-zero Global Stocktake just before COP28 (see later) demonstrated, NDCs are not working. A pre-summit analysis which included 20 new or recently updated NDCs showed that on current levels future emissions will still rise by 8.8% compared to 2010 levels – only slightly better than the 2022 projection of a 10.6% increase by 2030. Clearly, there is still much to do.

Passing down responsibility

Reliance on the NDC system has meant less pressure being put to date on the billions of people populating the Earth.

However, after eight years of government-level failure, the new approach involves seeing what small communities, local authorities, private companies, and individual citizens can achieve.

And this is where I think we can help at Enzygo (www.enzygo.com) through our air quality services (https://www.enzygo.com/air-quality/) and experience in air quality assessment, modelling, monitoring, habitat impact, management and mitigation plans, plus expert witness services.

All emission cuts great and small

I would like to look at some alternative scenarios where careful forward planning not only of new processes but also supply chains is opening up new EOL opportunities to cancel out GHG emissions.

As background, I should explain that Enzygo’s air quality team works across many sectors and project sizes – from single property residential developments to large-scale urban and rural industrial schemes, waste handling, innovative recycling and manufacturing processes, and mineral extraction operations.

The audit

It may come as no surprise that COP28 and our air quality services share a similar starting point – the initial audit is essential, whether it be called a global stocktake or an individual site-assessment.

The COP28 global stocktake looked in detail at all energy-efficiency measures that countries want to put in place, plus current or proposed fossil-fuel to renewable-energy transition programmes, new low-carbon innovations, and ground-breaking technologies.

The UN’s conclusion is that the world is currently heading for a circa 3.00C rather than 1.50C rise; a major portion of summit time looked at ways in which countries can realistically beef-up and deliver more powerful NDCs.

It is important to mention that other key summit issues included environmental investment finance for poorer Global South nations, and compensation for storm and rising sea level and flood damage.

Enzygo’s starting point is GHG assessments specific to individual projects, processes and site circumstances. Our aim is to reduce local pollution while making modest but positive contributions to net-zero targets that are significant when copied millions of times around the globe.

The other parochial advantage we provide is support for project managers and site operators to meet their legally-binding air quality, emissions and pollution responsibilities monitored by local authorities.

A new hierarchy for carbon removal

And it is here that the end-of-life (EOL) management of waste is providing us with more sustainable alternatives for dealing with GHGs.

It is widely known that landfill is an undesirable form of waste disposal when innovative technologies in a circular economy are able to make one process’s waste another’s feedstock, and both raw material consumption and ‘useless’ waste are minimised.

However, an unfortunate side effect of landfill – and other forms of disposal and even recycling and reuse without special care – is that the decomposition of certain waste products can lead to the release of carbon not just as CO2 but also the much more potent greenhouse gas of methane.

We need to avoid this carefully by following other waste control routes.

Exporting carbon problems is no solution … and not necessary

One of the less desirable and definitely unsustainable solutions for waste disposal is the increasing trend to export waste material, with the immediate negative effects of higher transport emissions.

Taking the short-cut of shipping European waste that will only become landfill in such far-flung places as China doesn’t help us in the long-run. As we are rapidly discovering, we share one relatively small planet where there is no safe place from destructive impacts.

In other words, you can export, but you can’t hide! Fortunately, there are better options.

Energy-from-waste … a replacement for fossil-fuels

This more valuable use of waste is a better interim solution that avoids landfill-related methane emissions. The downside is the instant release of more CO2; the upside is that electrical energy produced can be used in the grid. The gain is replacing fossil-fuel energy – gas, oil and coal.

An additional environmental benefit of energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities – also known as waste-to-energy (WtE) – is that further GHG savings can be made when the process heat created is exported to neighbourhood businesses and communities via local heat-networks.

EOL carbon reductions … carbon capture and storage (CCS)

However, in the big picture even when these relatively small steps multiplied over countless sites and operations do help us to cut fossil-fuel use, they still don’t take us all the way to net-zero.

The full answer with EfW and WtE facilities is that carbon capture and storage technologies may be needed on the site. However, I must add an air quality man’s warning here that this can actually increase some pollutants!

Why? Some CCS technologies need circa 15% to 25 % more energy than conventional plants. This adds both direct emissions from power generation, and indirect emissions in transporting extra fuel.

More sulphur dioxide (SO2) may also have to be removed after the fuel combustion stage. Particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions can also rise as additional fuel is used. Ammonia (NH3) emissions might potentially increase by a factor of three or more.

The upshot here is that CCS is generally positive for both climate change and air quality but potential increases in NH3, NOx and PM levels, plus lots of other nasties such as amines, may need to be addressed.

Other innovative EOL waste options

But EfW and WtE facilities alone are not the end of the low-carbon and low-emissions waste story.

At present, circa 46% of waste plastics are incinerated in the UK, which is not good. However, plastics that cannot be separated out and recycled mechanically can go instead through pyrolysis which is a more pollutant-controlled heat process than incineration.

Pyrolysis can produce an energy feedstock that not only avoids the undesirable incineration of plastics but also very usefully replaces fossil-fuels in the plastic manufacturing process in the first instance.

But this leading-edge thinking and planning does require a joined-up supply chain approach – with supporting planning policies – to be economically viable and positive from a climate change standpoint.

My main message here is ‘watch this space’. Meanwhile, I am happy to discuss new challenges, technical developments and opportunities at any time. Please feel free to contact me directly.

However, my underlying message is that assessing a development’s GHG potential involves considering not only emissions associated with the site, but also emissions that could be replaced in the EOL waste hierarchy.

Other key factors will be the UK’s future EOL strategy … and world’s ultimate climate change strategy!

COP28 – world successes and failures

After a cliff-hanger ending with two nights of tense negotiations, adjustments and compromises by 198 nations, the term ‘fossil-fuels’ was included for the first time in a COP summit final joint communique.

That in itself is unlikely to be anywhere near enough to reduce GHG emissions at a sufficient rate to avoid permanent surface temperature rises reaching dangerously high levels.

But the trajectory is said to be important in so much that since the Paris agreement was struck in 2015, successive COP summits have helped to cut coal consumption levels and natural gas use. Oil is now next in line.

More carbon storage and renewable energy

There is also a presumption that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies will be needed in future because so-called ‘unabated’ fossil-fuel use for heat and energy generation will not be acceptable.

The summit also decided that the roll-out of renewable energy assets must triple, including the use of combustible waste materials as part of the circular economy.

These are all areas where Enzygo has extensive project design, planning, and planning application experience working closely with industrial clients, communities and neighbourhood, plus local planning authorities.

It is also argued that market forces – supported by government interventions – will rapidly make renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs) cheaper and therefore more commercially attractive.

What was actually decided at COP28?

An immense amount of detail was covered in important peripheral meetings. There will also inevitably be more analysis, questioning, and interpretation in the weeks and months ahead.

However, the overarching composite view referred to as the ‘global stocktake’ text which took into account late adjustments submitted by co-operating nations officially recognised evidence that the world is badly behind its Paris commitments.

In more than 20 pages with some 200 clauses, the final conference statement: –

– Calls for countries to contribute to transition away from fossil fuels with the first ever explicit mention of reducing fossil fuel use – the main driver of climate change.

– Recognises that emissions will peak in the future, but the date of this happening will be different for developed or developing countries.

– Recognises that current levels of finance from richer countries to help their poorer counterparts cope with climate change and move to renewables has been lacking. However, it does not go beyond this to require richer nations to do more.

More information

As ever, if you think more information would be useful, or you would like to discuss in confidence potential end-of-life (EOL) options to minimise GHG impacts, improve air quality, and meet stringent quality standards, please feel free to contact me directly.

Conal Kearney – Director of Air Quality – Enzygo