Following the successful COP21 conference, we have an agreement uniting nearly 200 nations in tackling climate change and the need to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The main aims of the agreement are to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. It was also agreed to limit the amount of GHGs emitted by human activity to the same levels that the planet can absorb naturally, review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years and help poorer nations by providing climate finance.
So we have the international agreement, but how can we make it reality for the UK? We are feeling the effects of climate change today with the recent flooding that has caused havoc across the north-west.
To make a difference we need to ensure that human activities emit less carbon dioxide, and any that is emitted is easily and naturally absorbed. By using fewer virgin materials and moving away from fossil fuels we will be able to preserve resources and keep them in circulation as long as possible through adopting closed loop solutions – the circular economy.
This business model enables the economy to grow while minimising the amount of raw materials that are extracted. But the focus is not just environmental – it can also mean saving money. In this way it is a catalyst for ‘free growth’ that requires no state or external funding, just a change of mindset which the waste industry can help to inspire. Through embracing this approach, the UK’s climate and economic targets can be achieved.
To get there we must design products that take into account a second and third life, and we need better supply chain pricing which will ensure that the quality of secondary recycled materials will all become critical to doing business. We know that many items can be remanufactured into a useful product and, ultimately, we can expect that, in the future, companies will face a price premium for using raw materials.
Let’s anticipate potential water scarcity. By reducing the average 22% water losses from water infrastructure to below 5%, we can save this precious resource and reduce carbon emissions associated with this relatively energy-intensive utility.
With the supply pressures on our electricity grid, we can tackle concerns about energy security by addressing energy demands through low-carbon and renewable alternatives which can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions and cut energy bills.
Generating on-site low-carbon electricity and heat is in widespread use and has enormous potential. If we focus on carbon-neutral energy, we can expand our use of millions of tonnes of waste wood as a biomass fuel for generating electricity for the grid and providing community heating.
The UK’s water industry has more than seven million tonnes of human waste available each year that could be used to provide biogas to generate electricity, and the residue can be used as an organic fertiliser to improve crop yields. This also cuts the carbon footprint from the production of synthetic fertilisers.
Food waste can be used in a similar way to produce a biogas fuel, and this has now been pioneered as a fuel for public transport.
So the solutions exist in the mission against climate change, and businesses now need to alter their models and invest in green operations. The business case is clear: shifting to more sustainable activities not only reduces the carbon impact but also cuts costs and rapidly pays for itself. But for this to be implemented at the scale and speed needed, governments need to take significant steps to encourage businesses to act.
We have the proven concepts and technologies to meet the challenges of the COP21 agreement. We now need commitment to change our cultural mindset and protect the planet.
Estelle Brachlianoff is Veolia senior executive vice-president – UK & Ireland