The Waste and Resources Sector and COP27

With COP27 due to take place in a few days, Valpak Policy Researcher, Henry Smith outlines some of the key topics to be discussed and highlights why the role of the waste and resources sector needs to considered to ensure the target to reduce global temperature rises is met.

Conference of the Parties (COP) 27, the next annual meeting of representatives from across the world attempting to avert man-made climate change, is due to begin in just a few days.

Held in Sharm El-Sheikh, the conference is seen by many as the implementation COP where concrete progress towards ensuring global temperature rises are limited to 2°C at most, and 1.5°C ideally, is finally made.

Understandably COPs normally focus on reducing direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reducing the harmful impacts climate change is already having across the world. Perhaps less understandably, discussions around waste, pollution, and solutions to these problems, have been near non-existent at previous COPs, including COP26, held in Glasgow last year. Why should waste be a higher priority than it previously has been, and will COP27 be any different?

The threat of mismanaged waste

Mismanaged waste is a threat to our climate ambitions, not just from the direct harmful effects brought about by pollution on biodiversity, the environment, and possibly even human health, but also because of the GHG emissions associated with cleaning up polluted waste and resulting from harmful waste disposal activities such as burning.

Waste reduction activities could contribute up to 1.4 billion tonnes of global emissions reductions, equivalent to the GHG emissions of Brazil in 2016. If you were to ask delegates at COP27 if they felt Brazil simply did not need to attend, you can imagine the ridicule that would ensue. Devising internationally agreed standards for waste management, and then providing the support to implement best-in-class solutions should therefore be a priority at COP. The UK was well placed to emphasise this when it hosted the Conference, as the government was embarking on several innovations to the UK’s waste management system at the time. This was a missed opportunity to emphasise the importance of waste management in tackling climate change.

A focus on waste and resources is needed

Involving the waste and resources sector at COP27 has more to offer than just the prospect of reducing the sector’s own carbon emissions. The transition to a low-carbon future will require greater renewable energy use, reduced fossil fuel dependency, and greater use of technologies such as electric vehicles.

These innovations depend on critical raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and tungsten to name just a few. The UK recently published its revised list of critical minerals. Extracting these raw materials is often associated with harmful effects on the local environment, high levels of GHG emissions, and detrimental social justice impacts.

Unfortunately, at the same time, thousands of tonnes of electrical items are wasted annually in the UK alone each year, losing these very same critical materials in eye-watering quantities when considered at a global scale. Supporting infrastructure investment and policy intervention, not just to promote the sustainable extraction of these materials from the natural environment, but also to recover them from the waste items we are disposing of on a regular basis therefore ought to be a high priority at COP27.

Extended producer responsibility for fossil fuels

But the waste and resources sector has a further, pivotal insight to offer which has consistently been overlooked at the top levels of COP discussions in the past. Last year, in Glasgow’s ‘green zone’ – an area open to the public, NGOs, and climate activists to discuss issues of the day – a panel discussion was held on how best to reduce oil and gas production and consumption. Of the potential policy interventions touted was the introduction of extended producer responsibility for fossil fuels – making producers of fossil fuels financially responsible for remediating the impact of their products (the fuel) when it becomes waste. This may sound like little more than a fancy carbon offsetting scheme, but for those well versed with EPR, it is a potentially paradigmatic shift that offers tangible hope in speeding the transition to a more sustainable, circular pattern of resource use. By involving the waste and resources sector, high-level discussions of the effectivity and impact of policy interventions such as extended producer responsibility, recycled content mandates, deposit and return schemes, and eco-modulation for other types of products and materials could take place.

COP27 discussion themes

The only question that remains is will COP27 make these important strides? Unfortunately, the upcoming Conference is mired in controversy, with prominent climate activists staying away from the negotiations. But there are some signs of hope.

The proceedings are split into themed days where discussions centre around a particular overarching theme. Such themes include ‘Water Day’ and ‘Gender Day’. Whilst there isn’t a day or session specific to resources and waste, Thursday 17 November  – the penultimate day of the conference – is going to be  ‘Solutions Day’, the official description for which states that it will include a focus on “sectoral solutions like waste management, [and] alternatives to plastic…”.

Days are split into sessions with session 8 on the day entitled ‘Reinventing Waste Solutions for a better future’. The session appears to focus more narrowly on the waste and resources sector in Africa. Negotiations about how to improve the sector globally would be beneficial as every nation can and should be striving to make improvements in the way waste is managed; however, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Single-use plastics

In addition, one of the corporate sponsors for the Conference is Coca-Cola, and whilst this has been criticised by some, it does at least provoke discussion about single-use plastics and progress towards reducing the harmful impacts of the packaging industry.

No one can say with any certainty whether the upcoming COP will be a success; however, achieving success will likely remain difficult for as long as the waste and resources sector continues to be neglected at such a high level.