Addressing the climate crisis means transformational change across sectors, geographies, and the entire value chain, writes Zumo’s Environmental and Sustainability Advisor, Kirsteen Harrison. Zumo is a proud partner of WasteAid.

In the run-up to COP26, the climate crisis is dominating boardroom discussions around the globe, and the stakes are high – these are conversations that will determine our collective futures. Meaningful, coordinated commitments to far-reaching cuts in greenhouse gases are required across all sectors and countries, with a halving of greenhouse gas emissions required globally by 2030, and net zero by 2050 at the latest.

This calls for joined up thinking and action. As a technology company with a global outlook and sustainability at our core, at Zumo we recognise the part we have to play in that response – in our own sector and, just as importantly, through partnerships and as part of a collective effort towards decarbonisation that spans across sectors and the different facets of the climate crisis. We believe we have a huge challenge ahead of us, but also an enormous opportunity to play our part in creating a better future for all.


Decarbonising the crypto industry

Closest to home, Zumo is one of the early signatories to the Crypto Climate Accord (CCA), and we are working with the CCA to pilot innovative blockchain-based solutions to help drive decarbonisation of the sector. Although the crypto sector has understandably been criticised for the high levels of electricity consumption that some cryptocurrencies (most notably Bitcoin) are responsible for, we as an industry have a relatively straightforward journey ahead of us, compared to many other sectors that also need to reach net zero by mid-century.

This is due to the fact that, in crypto, there is a clear line of sight between the electricity consumed in mining, and the cryptocurrency supply generated as a result of that mining process. Whilst this high electricity consumption has drawn criticism from many, and the crypto sector has much work to do to clean up its act, the fact that mining equipment is not location sensitive means it can be set up where renewable energy sources are abundant. Electricity and mining equipment (similar to computer servers) are the only input and, technologically at least, we can transition to 100% renewable electricity relatively quickly. So, whilst there is much work left to be done, there is already a clear understanding of the impacts and what needs to be done to address these.


Embracing the wider picture

The same cannot be said for the waste sector, where the links between the climate crisis and waste are often poorly understood. In recent years, there has been much progress in this area, and WasteAid is at the forefront of communicating this important message and working with communities to develop low-cost solutions. This is one of the principal reasons why the Zumo team chose WasteAid as our charity partner – the climate crisis will not be sufficiently addressed by focussing on renewable energy alone, and we want to have as wide-reaching an impact as possible.


Looking beyond energy consumption

People tend to think of climate change as being caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels for energy, although the links between climate change, land use and food production is now better understood by many people. Even so, the links between the climate crisis and waste urgently need more attention – and the inconvenient truth is that we all need to look at what we consume. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that 45% of our carbon footprint comes from the products we consume and use. This includes, for instance, food, clothes and electrical items, but also single use items such as food containers, shampoo bottles and drinks cans – all of which will end up as waste. To respond sufficiently to the climate crisis, we need to address our consumption habits, and by inference, the waste we produce.


Is recycling enough?

In the UK, we have a well-developed infrastructure to deal with our waste, and this has historically enabled us to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. As long as we segregated our waste for recycling, we could sit in comfort knowing that we have ‘done our bit’. But doing our bit is no longer enough. Transformational change is required in the way we consume, and we need to quickly move to a more circular economy, where items stay in use for longer, are designed for easy repair and disassembly, and where leasing competes with purchase as the ownership model of choice.

In recent years, the UK waste industry has come under increased scrutiny for the carbon emissions associated with waste management practices, which include methane from landfill, and greenhouse gases (principally CO2) from the burning of residual waste to produce energy (energy from waste, or EfW). A clear link between the waste we produce, the way in which it is managed, and the respective greenhouse gas emissions in the UK was established long ago, but these figures were updated earlier in 2021 and show the full extent of this impact.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent, statutory body, estimates the UK waste sector was responsible for 4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019. Most of these emissions are due to the landfilling of waste (biodegradable waste decomposes in landfill to produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas). There has been a significant decline in emissions over the past two decades due to reductions in waste being landfilled, but little improvement in the past few years due to a plateau in UK recycling and significant growth in fossil emissions from EfW plants.

The CCC report looks only at the waste management activities themselves and not operational emissions associated with waste treatment, such as electricity usage. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) (the trade body representing the UK waste and resources sector) commissioned further work to inform its net zero strategy, which estimates the total contribution from the waste sector in the UK to be 8% of the UK’s GHG emissions. This includes the transport of waste, and electricity used to process waste. In line with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, this does not include avoided emissions (i.e. the benefits of recycling as opposed to using virgin materials) and so the real picture is more complex than these figures suggest. In fact, the ESA’s research shows that the emissions avoided by recycling in the UK are three times greater than the emissions from the recycling processes themselves.


The need in the developing world

If the total climate contribution of waste management in the UK is as high as 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, what might the potential impact be in developing countries? After all, in developing countries the avoided emissions of recycling are much less significant, as there is not such a well-developed recycling infrastructure in place as there is in the UK.

In many cases, this lack of waste collection and recycling infrastructure means that the only options for getting rid of waste are to dump it – either in illegal dumpsites or watercourses – or to burn it. Often, burning on dumpsites is undertaken to reduce the volume and make way for more waste. All of these options have significant impacts for the climate crisis.

In countries where there may not be proper waste management processes in place, the impacts are more difficult to calculate. There is often little data on the composition of waste (a high percentage of fossil carbon, such as plastics, makes the climate impact much greater), or the fate of this waste (whether burned, dumped on land, or in dumped watercourses, eventually ending up in the ocean). It could be argued that the lack of collection infrastructure or recycling plants reduces energy consumption – there are likely to be less emissions associated with collection vehicles and recycling infrastructure than there are in the UK, for example. However, as we have seen above the avoided emissions due to such infrastructure, where it exists, is significant. In fact, the lack of such infrastructure leads to increased demand on raw materials, which also contributes to the climate crisis.

There is also an often overlooked but hugely significant difference in waste practices which means that the climate impact of waste practices in countries with little or no waste infrastructure are far more significant than many people realise. In the UK and other developed countries, when residual waste is burned, energy is produced from waste facilities. These are subject to strict emissions limits and, as such, are fitted with robust abatement equipment to remove pollutants. Particulates (dust) are removed along with other pollutants such as NOx (Nitrogen Oxide), SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) and HCl (Hydrogen Chloride). With the open burning of waste there is no such abatement and toxic chemicals are released into the air. As well as being a health hazard for local communities, this releases particulates (soot, or black carbon), which is a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

Black carbon is the black smoke that is given off by a fire. When a fire burns relatively clean (for example, dry wood), there is less black smoke, but when plastics and tyres are burned, for example, the black smoke is significant. When waste is burned on a large scale, and the feedstock is uncontrolled, black carbon becomes significant in its contribution to climate change.

Black carbon stays in the atmosphere for a matter of days (compared to CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years), but can do significant damage in the time it remains airborne. The contribution to warming is 100 to 2,000 times more than that of CO2 on a 100-year timescale. The Global Waste Management Outlook estimates that around 10-15% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through improved waste management.


Why waste management matters

Climate resilience is particularly important when considering waste management. Poor waste management practices lead to discarded rubbish, blocking drains and waterways and leading to increased risk of flooding as weather patterns become more severe. Diverting food waste to use as compost regenerates degraded soils, improving water retention, and decreasing reliance on artificial irrigation.

Poor waste management practices in lower to middle income countries have long been associated with poor health outcomes, pollution, and lower standards of living. The links between waste management practices and climate change are slowly entering into the public consciousness, and the climate resilience of the countries that are likely to be most impacted by climate change may be compromised by poor waste practices.


Making the connections

Circling back to where we started, with cryptocurrencies and the crypto industry, although on the face of it blockchain technology and waste management may appear far apart, in reality they are both about empowering communities and creating sustainable livelihoods, at scale.

Blockchain and cryptocurrencies have the potential to be revolutionary in democratising finance, providing financial solutions to the world’s unbanked and reducing the cost of remittances to the world’s poorest countries. A borderless technology, cryptocurrency has the potential to help the poorest people in the world – and these are exactly the people who suffer the effects of poor waste management.

The link can be still more direct. While blockchain technology is only in its infancy, already we are seeing the emergence of blockchain applications that aim to tackle the waste management problem directly, leveraging blockchain technology as a tamper-proof record of provenance, a mode of incentivisation for environmentally friendly behaviours, and a high-tech way to provide the ledger of accountability for the world’s waste. It is just one strand of a range of emerging applications of ‘blockchain for good’, and how the technology could be applied to address world problems from poverty and hunger to education and governance.

Ultimately, whatever the angle we approach it from, whichever sector we happen to be in, what we agree on is that the climate crisis requires urgent action. For our part, we are proud to support WasteAid and raise awareness in this crucial area. As we approach the launch of our own Net Zero Strategy, we at Zumo will continue to work with the Crypto Climate Accord to ensure the crypto sector acts as an example to other sectors by showcasing what industry-wide decarbonisation looks like. And we will continue to work with partners wherever we can to ensure we are keeping sight of the bigger picture. The journey to a cleaner, more sustainable world is a journey we need to take together.


About the author

Kirsteen is Environmental & Sustainability Advisor to the Board at Zumo. She is a freelance environmental consultant with experience in many sectors including crypto, waste management, logistics and finance. Kirsteen is currently leading the development of net zero strategies at Zumo and several other companies. She is a stubborn optimist with a fierce conviction that businesses should be a force for good.

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In 2015 at the COP21, almost all nations signed the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that commits us to jointly combat global warming. This treaty was welcomed as a breakthrough and brought with it hope that the agreed temperature goal to limit the increase of global warming to well below 2 degree Celsius will allow us, and all ecosystems, to co-exist on our planet in worthwhile living conditions and within the known temperature variations that prevailed in Earth’s history.

The issues arising from “Business-as-usual and a linear economy”

During the last decades, numerous researchers and publications have emphasized that without the needed switch from a linear to a circular economy, it may be impossible to establish sustainable lifestyles. Likewise, we may fail to halt global warming as an ongoing and threatening process caused by human action.

Urbanization, population growth, economic development, industrialization and lifestyle changes are all continuously advancing processes. All of these factors trigger steadily increasing resource consumption and waste generation and related environmental impacts. Moreover, our existing business practices with prevailing, short-term-oriented economic goals hinder our change towards more sustainable production and consumption.

For instance, design and life span of common products do not aim at long-lasting and reusable products as envisioned within the context of a circular economy, but foremost target short- to mid-term replacement to secure market share and business operations. Sooner or later, this causes additional waste generation.

The World Bank estimates the current global domestic waste generation to be around 2 Billion tonnes, increasing to 3.4 Billion tonnes in 2050 if we do not introduce the needed changes. In this context it is relevant that the majority of collected waste is organic in nature, often more than 50%.

This becomes especially visible in fast growing urban areas where biowaste management within ‘the backyard’ is no longer possible for most residents, and needs sophisticated logistics for collection, treatment and disposal. As much as “waste avoidance, reuse and recycling” are the desirable alternatives to disposal, they remain theory in many low- and middle countries where waste collection alone absorbs a major part of available resources. In addition, formal operations are often hindered by uncoordinated waste recovery activities performed by the informal sector. Moreover, expertise and capacities to enhance waste management systems are low in most municipalities in developing countries.

Consequently, urban areas develop as centers of resources consumption and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and emerge as ‘hot spots’ responsible for increasing climate impacts. In fact, cities generate around 70% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions at present.

How can a circular economy help raise ambitions of climate action?

A circular economy as a means to support climate action is becoming increasingly important, as the urgency to raise ambition for climate mitigation grows. While current climate action pledges are not sufficient to meet agreed goals and targets, the concept of a circular economy could help to bridge this ambition gap.

This concept thereby goes beyond the idea of shifting energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable energy, in fact: Virtually all product cycles need to become more efficient and closed in order to reach climate neutrality.

This restructuring of our economy would offer considerable advantages beyond climate mitigation: it would lessen the pressure on natural resources, create jobs through innovation, assist to protect biodiversity and increase urban quality of life as well. Even though there are ample sector- and product-specific studies that quantify the mitigation potential of circular economy measures, little has been published on their potential to help raise the ambition level of Nationally Determined Contributions that have to be prepared and submitted by all countries as regulated with the Paris Agreement every 5 years.

In any way, a transformation is also needed at municipal level from designing services in a “post-consumer manner” towards interventions that address the entire value chain from ‘raw material extraction to product design, distribution and use’ by implementing the so-called ‘cradle-to-cradle concept’ as introduced be Braungart & Mc Donough in 1990.

Under the Paris Agreement, the objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C by the end of the 21st century became the benchmark for global climate mitigation ambition. Nationally Determined Contributions represent the parties’ national climate goals for mitigation and adaptation and are subject to regular review and update, with the aim of steadily increasing the ambition level in each cycle. Literature such as the Circularity Gap report underline the need for circular economy action to close the gap between current climate pledges and needed ambition. The huge potential of circular economy is obvious, since at present only around 9% of all resources we use could be accounted ‘as circular’.

To increase global efforts for the needed switch from a linear to a circular economy, it is important to fully understand the importance and contributions of individual sectors for accomplishing development and climate goals, how sectoral policies and measures can be prioritized, and how the ambition level and contributions can be raised over time.

To conclude, the concept of a circular economy is in the unique position to generate numerous benefits for resources management, for sustainable development and for climate mitigation. However, this can only be realized with effective coordination to connect the various sectors on the ground in order to realize additional mitigation potentials and co-benefits.

This again points towards the relevance to build capacity among local actors and especially city governments, to better understand and integrate a circular economy into their development plans and operations, and also to better integrate towns and cities into the future planning and design of measures that could raise ambition for Nationally Determined Contributions.


About the Author
Dr. Johannes Paul is geologist and environmental engineer with 30 years professional experience in water and waste management. He has worked for various public, private sector and academic institutions in Germany, EU, Canada and Asia from 1988 on. Since July 2017 he acts on behalf of GIZ as senior advisor for the global sector project “Concepts for sustainable Waste Management and Circular Economy” at the Division of Climate, Environment and Infrastructure in Eschborn, Germany. Focus of his work are various research and development projects that relate to environmental policy, circular economy and integrated waste management. Current activities address urban waste management, climate mitigation in the waste sector, marine pollution through plastic and packaging waste, related SDGs and capacity building for waste management in low- and middle-income countries. In his private capacity he supports the Working Group Climate Change & Waste Management of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), since 2019 as elected Vice-Chair of the working group.

From 2000 until 2017 Dr. Paul has lived and worked in the Philippines and Sri Lanka with various short-term assignments in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Thailand. During this time, he also acted from 2004-2012 as team leader of the GIZ waste management program in the Philippines. Relevant outcomes of this program were a National Strategy on Solid Waste Management (SWM), the development of a waste management course for graduate students and professionals and innovative best practices for municipal solid waste management in the Philippines. From 2014 until June 2017 he supported the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka as senior researcher with focus on waste management and resources recovery in South Asia. In his ex-officio capacity Dr. Paul acted as lecturer and co-supervisor of graduate students for several universities in Germany, The Netherlands, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Dr. Paul has authored / co-authored more than 100 publications for scientific journals and international conferences, most of them related to waste and water management (