When world leaders meet at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, this week to present, among other things, national action plans in the climate area, Denmark will be one of the class' good students. We have stepped up our ambitions and efforts towards a CO2-free future since recently. Countries such as Australia and Saudi Arabia are coming to fight for the old fossil energy sources such as coal and oil, of which they are major suppliers. On the other hand, Denmark is investing wisely in the technological development of fossil-free alternatives, which we can make a living from exporting to the rest of the world.
However, the Danish government is resting its climate efforts on technologies that have not matured, let alone developed yet, so we can not be sure to achieve the planned CO2 savings. Bearing this in mind, it is incomprehensible that the government is eager to shut down one of the areas where we in Denmark already have the lead: namely, the energy utilization in waste incineration.
Read more about the modern incineration plant, Copenhill (ARC), in Copenhagen here.
A small part of the government's climate plan (measured in CO2 savings) is to make Denmark a circular economy through detailed waste sorting and increased recycling. That in itself is wise - although it is uncertain whether the consumer's requirement for sorting and collection is the right strategy. But when the politicians simultaneously want to reduce waste incineration by stopping importing other countries' residual waste, things do not make sense anymore. The incineration covers 25% of the Danish district heating today, and at the same time, it produces electricity while we wait for 'greener' energy sources.
Last year's waste agreement, backed by a broad political majority, states that we can not continue to import so much waste for incineration from the other EU countries, "if Denmark is to be a green pioneer, even when it applies to waste and recycling." This policy, though, is more symbolic than making common sense. For some years to come, at least, it makes perfect sense to let us take the waste from other countries - not only financially, but also climatically. A comprehensive report from DTU stated in 2018 that it would be a climate advantage when Denmark imports waste from other EU countries at least for ten years to come. And there are many indications that we can add many years to that.
Firstly, Denmark is better at extracting energy from waste because the waste produces both electricity and heat. In many, especially Eastern and southern European countries, the alternative to incineration is even landfilling, from which climate-damaging methane leaks into the atmosphere. As long as the waste treatment capacity in the EU is not developed, it makes sense to exploit the capacity we currently have in Denmark. Read more about Waste-to-Energy solutions here.
Secondly, recycling - which is a better alternative to incineration - is more a more complex procedure. Even in Denmark, which is technologically advanced in this field, professionals recognize that it takes years before we can recycle fractions such as clothes, plastic, cartons, etc. So why not let Denmark take the waste from other EU countries while developing innovative recycling technology for them and ourselves?
Thirdly, it now turns out that climate disasters create mountains of waste that cannot be recycled. Regardless of what COP26 may end up in, we will most likely, unfortunately, get more of the kind where we in Denmark can burn climate-wise more responsibly than others. Even if we reach the goal of the climate plan for CO2 capture, where, among other things, the incineration plant Copenhill is working on a testplant, we can also make it CO2-neutral.
Last but not least, it is becoming increasingly clear that the biomass that can alternatively fill in the incinerators to create district heating is becoming a scarce resource. One of the host country's ambitions at COP26 is to leave more trees standing. In order to meet this demand we can displace the use of wood pellets with waste which otherwise will be ending in landfills.
It is simply not the time to close down the well-functioning Danish waste incineration. We have invested both money and CO2 in the construction, and as long as the alternatives for waste treatment in the EU are more harmful to the climate, we should continue.
Translated from the Danish article "Skrot frelst symbolpolitik – lad Danmark brænde affaldet" by Chief Editor, Trine Reitz Bjerregaard at Teknologiens Mediehus