CEO Report: Inside Waste October - November 2021 Issue

From the CEO’s desk – now this really is a race!

The race is on to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target – a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels – but is this a race that will adequately address our growing climate crisis?

Australia’s response to date has been inadequate if the intent is to make impactful and deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. Ahead of United Nations (UN) climate talks in Glasgow at the end of the year, a number of countries, including the US, Japan and the UK, have increased their targets to 50-52%, 46%, and 68% respectively. Australian on the other hand, has continued to hold firm to the 26-28% target since 2015.

Based on the latest federal data, Australia is on track to cut emissions by only a third of a percent per year – that is 0.28% - over the next decade. According to the Climate Council, Australia needs to cut its emissions 21 times faster – upping its target to a 75% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 - if Australia is to play its part in avoiding the impacts of our worsening climate, noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a “code red” for the climate crisis in early August.

We know that climate change is an increasing concern amongst the community. A recent Lowy Institute poll found that six (6) in 10 Australians believe global warming to be a serious and pressing problem while 55% of Australians – an eight (8)-point increase since 2019 – say the government’s main priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions”. Notably, 74% agree that the benefits of taking action on climate change will outweigh the costs and 78% would support a net-zero emissions target for 2050. Even heavy industries are feeling the pressure, case in point mining giant Fortescue who recently announced it would unveil a target in September to lower the greenhouse gases of its customers, following in the footsteps of BHP and Rio Tinto.

Our waste and resource recovery (WARR) sector is in a unique position, given it is intertwined with virtually every industry, meaning we have the ability to help other sectors reduce their carbon impacts, in addition to what we already do to mitigate emissions, for instance, through landfill gas capture, FOGO initiatives, or maximising energy from waste. Rethinking our value chain, where the focus goes beyond recycling to the upper rungs of the adopted waste hierarchy – avoidance, reuse, and repair – will enable efficiency gains in material and energy use, while preserving the economic value embedded in products and reducing resource use.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has noted that depending on the sector, value retention processes could reduce primary material demand by upwards of 80% and together with remanufacturing, carbon emissions could be reduced by upwards of 79%. If Australia scales up manufacturing using recycled materials and moves towards clean energy, we will undoubtedly create new industries (and jobs), decouple from global economies, and decrease resource consumption – all of which will reduce our consumption footprint, improve resource efficiency, and eliminate unnecessary transportation that would drive carbon neutrality.

However, despite the 2030 target, we do not have a federal climate or energy policy that maps out robust pathways, actions, or responsibilities set for industries to make real and quantifiable change towards net zero. While there are jurisdictions that have started to turn their attention to the carbon issue and should be commended, and while industry has been managing end-of-pipe emissions, the federal government needs to step up in a number of ways.

With 2030 only nine (9) years away, we’d suggest that Australia requires its own green deal including a green consumption pledge to drive real change in how we approach sustainability, climate action and purchasing.

Over the last few years, WMRR has been engaging with governments on how, as key material managers of valuable used resources, our sector can maximise opportunities to drive WARR impact areas, including carbon emissions. The next and important step in this journey is to build on the national emphasis on organics and identify priority material streams that have the greatest impact by weight and carbon emissions across actions within the waste hierarchy that should be tackled to reduce emissions, as well as drive avoidance, production and consumption of recycled goods, and extending lifecycle through right to repair and re-use.  

Jurisdictions have a key role to play in this work by creating systems and regulation that drive circularity, including indicators and metrics in their reporting that capture these impacts and the effect that this has on Australia’s carbon and water footprint over a product’s lifecycle. In quantifying a material’s footprint, we can develop strategies across the supply chain that will drive positive change in product design, resource minimisation (and on the flip side, maximisation), and sustainable material management that will enable a number of economic benefits, including carbon emissions mitigation. This is certainly not a novel approach, having already been undertaken in Europe where it has been established that the priority materials are food, biomass, C&D, critical raw materials, and plastic.

As they say, knowledge is power and it is when we have accurate data on the impacts of materials throughout their lifecycles that we can make positive change, for instance, by potentially replicating the EU’s Ecodesign Initiative, a long-term framework that sets mandatory ecological requirements for all products sold in the EU. The aim of this initiative is to ensure that manufacturers will, at the design stage, be obliged to reduce energy consumption and other negative environmental impacts of products (noting that 70% of carbon emissions are related to material management), while enforcing considerations such as recyclability, polluting emissions, waste, and water use.

2030 is not far off and Australia can and must join its neighbours that have further committed to reducing their emissions to net zero by 2050. These targets will not be achieved by sheer luck or by the efforts of a few; instead, we need a concerted and targeted approach by the federal government now to give us the best chance at success in playing a significant role in mitigating the impacts of climate change.