Will Waste-to-Energy Help Reach Net-Zero Carbon Emissions?

Will Waste-to-Energy Help Reach Net-Zero Carbon Emissions?
(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
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We’re fast approaching a scary deadline. According to environmental scientists, we need to reduce 50% of our collective carbon emissions by 2030 to prevent climate catastrophe. The ultimate goal is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to stop the planet from warming up more than it already has.

What does net-zero mean for carbon emissions, and will the waste-to-energy industry help the global community meet that goal? Here are some things to consider and steps that must be taken to bring the world in line with the net-zero philosophy. It can be done, but it will take commitment and effort from all parties involved.

What Are Net-Zero Carbon Emissions?

With the current state of technology and our global dependence on fossil fuels for everything from energy production to transportation, eliminating human-made greenhouse gas emissions feels like an impossible task. The net-zero goal isn’t to stop them but rather to balance what we’re putting into the atmosphere by removing an equal amount of greenhouse gases.

This can take many different forms, ranging from direct capture devices that pull CO2 and other greenhouse gases directly from the air to restoring forests and other natural environments that naturally remove and store CO2.

The biggest challenge to carbon neutrality isn’t creating technologies that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. We must reduce our use of emissions-generating technologies to the point where mitigation technology can actively offset the number of gases we’re creating.

What Is Waste-to-Energy?

We hear a lot of news about CO2 and CO emissions, but one of the worst greenhouse gases when it comes to climate change is methane. Most of the methane waste in our atmosphere comes from the livestock industry, as well as from organic waste biodegradation in landfills. Around one-third of the food produced by the entire planet gets wasted or thrown away, and most of that ends up in landfills, decomposing and releasing a 50/50 mix of methane and carbon dioxide.

Waste-to-energy hopes to turn some solid refuse from these landfills into a viable fuel source for generating electricity. It is sent to an incinerator that burns hot enough to destroy any dangerous or toxic chemicals. The heat turns water to steam, which powers turbines that generate electricity. Leftover ash then becomes base layers for landfills or is used in road construction.

Getting to Net-Zero With Waste-to-Energy

Are waste-to-energy technologies the solution to help us reach that net-zero goal for carbon emissions? As a stopgap measure, the answer is yes. Landfills are already out there. Generating methane to burn and convert them into fuel sources can help reduce the number of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere.

The biggest challenge is the cost. The technology is relatively new and is currently exorbitantly expensive. The systems also require careful maintenance to ensure they’re not just dumping all those greenhouse gases back into the environment.

The idea of waste-to-energy is also problematic because some believe it will create more problems by encouraging people to generate more waste. The last thing we need is more refuse ending up in landfills, generating methane and CO2 and contributing to climate change.

Looking Toward the Future

We’re in the early stages of the waste-to-energy revolution, and it’s too early to tell if it will have a measurable impact on our planetary greenhouse gas emissions. However, it’s looking promising. The most important thing to work on right now is improving the technology to make it as efficient and effective as possible. From there, we can incorporate it as part of solid waste management practices in cities, states and countries around the globe.


Jane Marsh works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co.

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