This month the heated debate which has been ongoing in other sectors in relation to how we all play our part in achieving the Scottish Government's statutory target of net zero by 2045, boiled over in the waste sector with the publication of Zero Waste Scotland's controversial report "The Climate Change impact of burning municipal waste in Scotland".  A head on challenge to the settled policy of replacing landfill with EfW, the report suggests that MBT and landfill should be pursued as a policy instead of new EfW facilities. The report also suggests that energy from EfW facilities can no longer be considered a low carbon technology. 

Some of the conclusions of the report have caused concern in the waste industry in Scotland. The recommendation that landfill should be considered as a low carbon solution appears to be made without regard to the other environmental issues associated with landfill, which should not be ignored.  It also causes uncertainty in relation to the policy direction in Scotland at a critical point in the journey towards making the 2025 landfill ban a reality.

Notwithstanding these comments the report should be welcomed, as it has challenged the industry to look afresh at how it plans to contribute to net zero by 2045. Investment decisions taken today will determine the extent to which the waste sector is able to contribute towards a net zero Scotland in 2045. These decisions must be carefully considered and taken with a full understanding of all the relevant factors and data, and the technology which will contribute to achieving the target. 

As lawyers we can't comment on the analysis behind the report's finding but in many ways the report tells us what we already know and what is already reflected in legislation and policy in Scotland. 

  • CHP is much more efficient than power only plants. This is reflected in the requirements of the Thermal Treatment of Waste Guidelines. However, the challenges of actually connecting EfW facilities to district heating schemes are significant. The Heat Networks Scotland Bill before the Scottish Parliament looks to address some of the difficulties of getting a district heating scheme off the ground but they are expensive and significant investment is required to get the infrastructure for these schemes in place. 
  • Pre-treatment and source segregation in critical to improving the carbon impact of waste management. We all know this is one of the areas the sector must focus on to achieve net zero. 

The key issue which is highlighted by the report is the urgent need to update the data the sector is using to make investment decisions today which will have a significant impact on the sector's ability to reach net zero by 2045. EfW facilities built today will still be around in 2045. Data gaps such as the destination of waste and energy outputs of the facilities which are considered by the report are highlighted.  The data in respect of the performance of the facilities dates back to 2018. The waste composition analysis is based on the Zero Waste Scotland's 2017 composition analysis of MSW in Scotland in 2014/2015 updated by SEPA in 2018 to take account of expected changes following the introduction of food waste collection schemes.  

Last week Addleshaw Goddard released the first video in its series "Countdown to Carbon Zero", which looks at the net zero challenge in the transport sector. The comments made by industry leaders in transport apply equally to the waste sector. We all have our part to play and the challenge will need strong alignment. In recent years the waste sector has been dogged by a lack of strong policy direction and delay in implementing the policies which have been put in place, which has stymied investment and arguably penalised those that have risen to the challenge. This will need to change if the sector is to achieve net zero by 2045.

In response to the Zero Waste report SESA have commented that "the industry is fully committed to net zero and SESA is developing a carbon strategy to help demonstrate where emissions in the waste sector can be reduced, including EfW". We look forward to the publication of that report and, as we head towards the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November next year, to the debate which will surely follow on how the sector should respond to the net zero challenge.

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Suzanne Moir

Suzanne Moir

Partner, Infrastructure, Projects and Energy

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