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Carbon dioxide and climate change

This is legacy content from before the 2019 website relaunch and might not be up-to-date. Use the main navigation to find the latest information.

Incineration releases greenhouse gasses

Incineration involves the release of high levels of CO2, the main climate warming gas. Accounting for recovered energy, incineration is accompanied by twice or more the CO2 per unit of power than the same energy (as electricity or combined heat-and-power) produced from fossil fuel (Stop Trashing the Climate report, June 2008). The Environment Agency’s WRATE software is used to claim energy-from-waste is beneficial, but this depends on faulty assumptions on efficiency and bio-carbon. Proper lifecycle calculations using the better ATROPOS model found that “scenarios using incineration were amongst the poorest performing” while those using MBT were much better (Greenhouse Gas Balances of Waste Management Scenarios, Eunomia Consulting report plus errata to the Greater London Authority, January 2008).

Studies show that for electricity-only incinerators (incinerators that do not optimise the use of the heat they produce), energy production is so inefficient that, from a climate change perspective, incineration is worse than gas- or coal-fired power stations! See Dirty Truths: Incineration and Climate Change and A Changing Climate for Energy from Waste? and Stop Trashing the Climate for further details.

On 20th October 2008, Environment ministers from the 27 European Union (EU) countries approved a new framework waste directive that includes provisions to burn waste for energy use as part of a five-step hierarchy prioritising prevention. The energy efficiency criterion sets all, or almost all, UK Incinerators as “disposal” facilities at the bottom of the new hierarchy. EU States must use that hierarchy, so no one can now pretend that WRATE (modelling software, with an inbuilt pro-incineration bias) makes incinerators preferable to landfill for residual waste.

See Waste-to-energy plans get EU’s nod of approval for more…

Climate change is a material planning consideration

Full and proper consideration to climate change is a requirement within the context of the planning process. This is emphasised by the publication, in December 2007, of Supplementary Guidance to Planning Policy Statement 1 on Planning and Climate Change (Communities and Local Government 2007).

Until Local Development Framework documents are in place which reflect policies in this supplementary PPS, planning authorities are urged to ensure that proposed developments are consistent with the policies in ‘Planning and Climate Change’ and to pay particular attention to the environmental performance of a proposed development, taking particular account of the climate the development is likely to experience over its expected lifetime.

The supplementary guidance confirms that: “policies in this PPS are capable of being material to decisions on planning applications”. It says that applicants for planning permission should: “…consider how well their proposals for development contribute to the Government’s ambition of a low-carbon economy and how well adapted they are for the expected effects of climate change” and: “Applicants and planning authorities should bear in mind that the…climate change considerations should be integrated into all spatial planning concerns”.

More about the climate change issues associated with PPS 1 can be found on the Communities and Local Government website and in Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change – Supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1.

How to Account for CO2 Emissions from Biomass in an LCA

Ari Rabl et al.

In a part of the LCA community, a special convention has been established according to which CO2 emissions need not be counted if emitted by biomass. For example, many studies on waste incineration do not take into account CO2 from biomass within the incinerated waste, arguing that the creation of biomass has removed as much CO2 as is emitted during its combustion. The logic of such a practice would imply absurd conclusions, e.g. that the CO2 emitted by burning a tropical forest, if not counted, would equalize the climate impact of burning a forest and preserving it, which is obviously wrong. Likewise, the benefit of adding carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to a biomass fuelled power plant would not be evaluated because that CO2 is totally omitted from the analysis.

To avoid such conclusions, we recommend that emission and removal of CO2 be counted explicitly at each stage of the life cycle. For example, in a study of a biomass fuel chain (where biomass is grown as fuel to be burned in a power plant), the removal of CO2 should be counted explicitly for the biomass plantation, and the emission of CO2 explicitly for the power plant. The net effect is of course zero or almost zero in this case: the biomass has been produced only to provide fuel for the power plant. But for an LCA of waste treatment, the appropriate system boundary is at the point where the waste has been produced, since it has been produced regardless of the chosen treatment method. Thus the CO2 emitted during incineration has to be counted fully. If CCS is included in these examples, such explicit accounting automatically yields the appropriate results, whereas the above-mentioned convention would wrongly assume that removal and emission are balanced.

Also see FoE’s Dirty Truths booklet on the climate impacts of energy from waste and residual waste treatment