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EU ETS and municipal incinerators: a quick debunk of industry claims

by Janek Vähk

The industry frequently claims that climate will not benefit from the inclusion of incinerators within the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). 


However, experience shows us these claims are vastly misleading. Let us debunk this notion using concrete examples. 



Emissions from waste incineration are already included in the EU ETS Directive


The only waste incineration emissions currently excluded from the ETS are the ones coming from municipal and hazardous waste. When a Member State classifies an installation as a co-incinerator, it is also covered by the EU ETS. Furthermore, Member States may also choose to opt-in emissions from additional activities not covered by the EU ETS Directive –  for example, Denmark and Sweden have already included their municipal incinerators in the scope.



The inclusion of incinerators within the EU ETS brings in many benefits


For starters, the inclusion helps to correct the unfair competition with other energy producers, especially those using renewable sources such as wind and solar renewable energy. Additionally, as burning waste results in much higher CO2 emissions (250–600kg CO2 /per tonne of waste) than burning fossil fuel, continued use of incineration is simply delaying a much needed and urgent transition to less carbon-intensive power generation infrastructure. This is, to put it plainly, contrary to the values and objectives of the EU Green Deal and of the Circular Economy Action Plan. 


Secondly, a higher gate fee (thanks to ETS costs) would also encourage better waste management methods – such as improving sorting and recovery of materials from the residual waste. It would also incentivise waste providers to decrease the share of the fossil content in waste input, especially if the higher costs could be allocated towards them. There is an increasing need for recovering plastic from residual waste – for instance, due to recycled content requirements. This can eventually contribute to a lower impact of burning, which is – and must be kept as – the strategic priority. Some operators (e.g. the ROAF plant on the outskirts of Oslo) have started doing front-end removal of plastics and other materials for recycling purposes. Countries like Denmark, as well as several Belgian regions (Flanders and Wallon), have gone even further by setting targets to reduce the overall amount of waste incinerated.


Finally, higher costs of incineration would also create an enabling policy framework for low-carbon non-combustion alternatives such as Material Recovery and Biological Treatment (MRBT) facilities. MRBT facilities are climate-friendly as they recover fossil-based materials whilst stabilising the organics. This is of particular importance given the ongoing decarbonisation of the EU economy and energy production, which implies the need to reduce GHG emissions progressively and steadily to achieve net-zero by 2050.



The way forward


With the European Commission currently revising the ETS Directive, there’s a unique opportunity to extend the scope of this legislation, ensuring that it covers other sectors and that it fully accounts for a circular economy and future. 


Zero Waste Europe strongly recommends the inclusion of municipal incinerators to help decarbonise the waste sector, as well as to create an enabling framework for sustainable non-combustion alternatives such as MRBT facilities. 

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