Cutting emissions from the world’s waste management companies could have a big impact in the fight against climate change, according to a United Nations report released today.
“Waste and Climate Change: Global Trends and Strategy Framework” – prepared by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Environmental Technology Centre – says the waste sector is particularly well placed to cut its contribution to global man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) and even become an emissions saver.
The report recommends reducing the amount of primary materials used in manufacturing, storing carbon in landfills and compost, and harvesting methane from rubbish tips for fuel and electricity generation.
“The waste sector is already acting to minimize the impact of potentially potent greenhouse gases like methane, but this is often done on a country-by-country basis. The time is ripe to scale up and deliver a far more coordinated and global response, especially in respect to developing economies,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
The report was released as delegates from around the world meet in the Mexican city of Cancún for the 16th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Estimates put the emissions contribution of the waste sector at roughly 3-5 per cent of GHG, about equal to the GHG produced by international aviation and shipping. However, the study notes that reliability of calculation methods and data between countries vary, with uncertainty ranging from 10-30 per cent in developed countries to as high as 60 per cent in developing countries that do not produce annual data.
Landfills emitting methane are considered the biggest contributors from the waste sector in terms of emissions, in part because methane is thought to be 25 times more harmful over a 100-year period than carbon dioxide. Landfills with gas recovery systems have been able to capture 50-80 per cent of the methane emitted.
Although developing countries generate on average only 10-20 per cent of the waste of developed countries, the figure is growing along with their economies. Attempts to decouple waste production from economic growth through Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects have the potential to focus more on landfill gas. In China, only 2.5 per cent of CDM projects are landfill ones while in India the figure is just under 2 per cent.
The Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, Katharina Kummer Peiry, welcomed the Waste and Climate Change Report, which, she said, bucked a trend of underestimation of the ways in which waste management can help combat climate change.
“The Secretariat looks forward to joining forces with others in strengthening this link through the environmentally sound management of waste,” she said.
More focus on winning quick victories in the battle against climate change, like the one offered by taking new approaches to waste management, can help in bridging the gap between the emissions levels scientists say are essential to keep 21st century temperature rise lower than 2 degrees Celsius.
“Every avenue, every opportunity and every option for cutting greenhouse gases needs to be brought into play if the world is to combat dangerous climate change and set the stage for a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy urgently needed in the 21st century,” said Mr. Steiner.