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Energy saving by recycling is a financial and ethical issue

Lord Redesdale

Lord Redesdale on the shift in sustainability

The past few years have seen a change in the economics of recycling. This change is linked not only to decreases in raw materials but also to a fundamental shift in the public perception and understanding of sustainability.

Not long ago the word ‘sustainability’, when used in politics, was associated with international development and debt. But today the term is predominantly linked to carbon and climate change.

The argument over the reality of climate change has by and large been won. The 2008 Climate Change Act was the first legislative step to lowering the UK’s carbon emissions. The Act set ambitious targets, which will require unprecedented and dramatic changes in the behaviour of the population if they are to be achieved.

Recent global crises have shocked the world. In their wake, we shall feel the pull of a much greater force driving behaviour change: energy costs. The tsunami in Japan knocked out 27% of the country’s electricity-generating infrastructure. And the nuclear disaster means that the country will only be able to meet its energy needs with gas power stations fuelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Britain currently fulfils 20% of its energy requirements with LNG imported from Qatar, but competition for LNG is almost certain to push up its price. Furthermore, the situation in Libya has accelerated the already rising oil prices. Such pressures on the cost of fossil fuels mean it is likely that electricity will follow suit, possibly by as much as 20% this year alone.

The amount we spend on energy as individuals and by companies is set to rise dramatically. The only effective way to combat these increases is to reduce demand.

Traditionally, energy saving has been seen as the expensive option. But changes in the perception of sustainability mean that conservation of energy will not only be a financial necessity, but our decisions will be backed by the weight of moral conviction.

“There has been a fundamental shift in the public perception of sustainability”

In the light of current events, the recycling sector will need to do its utmost to ensure maximum energy efficiency to keep the costs under control. But we are entering an age where the voluntary option to recycle will be replaced by regulation and fiscal penalty. A number of councils are already imposing sanctions on those who refuse to participate. The change in perception around the country is startling. Equally so is the diversity of council responses: while there are some that enforce recycling, others seem to be making the recycling process as difficult as possible.

The industry will need to take on the supposed hostility to kerbside food recycling. The development of a mature anaerobic digestion (AD) industry means that the UK will have a sustainable mechanism for dealing with this waste. It will not only recycle otherwise lost energy, but also nitrates, phosphates and potassium. Without AD and its recycling benefits the cost of food will increase.

The Government introduced the carbon reduction commitment in the last Budget. And the introduction of a fuel escalator, that has the potential to grow year on year based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, is a perfect expression of the financial and ethical issues surrounding carbon and energy.

Lord Redesdale is chairman of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association

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