Carbon abatement – the waste sector can do much more

Projections show Australia is very unlikely to meet its current 2030 carbon reduction targets, with recent reports of increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from all sectors other than the electricity and agriculture industries.

Questions are being raised about how exactly Australia is going to meet its Paris Agreement obligations. And rightly so.

Australia has just declared the hottest year on record following the third and fourth hottest years on record in the last 5 years. We are in the midst of a record drought and the worst fire season in memory.

GHG emissions have continued to rise since the termination of the carbon price, with 558.3 million tonnes (MT) of CO2—e emitted for the year 2017/18.

To reach a 26-28% Paris Reduction Target on Australia’s 2005 CO2-e levels (595Mt CO2—e /yr), a further 118MT CO2—e/yr must be abated.

The waste industry could meet almost half of that requirement per year.

In 2007 a study commissioned by SUEZ and undertaken by Warnken ISE, showed that through three key activities the waste industry could abate over 35MT/yr.

MRA recently updated the models in the report and has found that with maximum diversion to resource recovery, recycling and energy from waste (for the non-recyclable stream) 50MT/yr of CO2—e can be abated through four simple and relatively cheap measures:

  1. Divert organics from landfill – 18MT CO2—e can be abated through diverting organics away from landfill including paper, cardboard, garden organics, food waste, wood and timber.
  2. Capture landfill gas – 11MT CO2—e can be avoided through capturing landfill gas, which can be used for electricity generation or simply flared.
  3. Increased recycling – 17MT CO2—e can be avoided through recycling of high embodied energy materials like metals, paper, cardboard, glass, and plastics (i.e. avoiding the emissions associated with the extraction and processing of raw resources).
  4. Energy from Waste – 4MT CO2—e can be abated through the production of energy from solid waste derived fuels.

The world as a whole needs to massively increase efforts to keep warming lower than 2°C. Individual countries should start by meeting their Paris commitments. Despite the government’s claims that Australia will easily reach its targets, multiple UN reports have clearly outlined we are off-track.

Australia needs to do more. We are a rich developed nation. While we generate 1.7 per cent of global emissions, we can and should punch well above our weight in term of innovation, technology development and implementing systems to reduce emissions. Not only will this reduce Australia’s emissions but will provide a template for other developing countries to utilise.

The waste and recycling sector can lead the charge in emissions reduction if government and industries choose to employ these strategies. There are few other sectors that offer such low-cost carbon abatement options with the added benefit of resource conservation. Plus, it is very simple to execute. These solutions leverage existing technology and established methods that have been practised around the world for decades. The industry knows what to do; it just needs the right pricing and/or regulatory signals to be able to do it in the Australian market in large scale.