Oxford Labour: environmentally clueless

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2006

A provocative headline… let me explain it.

A couple of weeks ago, at Oxford city’s Full Council meeting, Labour put forward a motion urging the County Council and Oxfordshire Waste Partnership “to exclude incineration in the tenders for future waste treatment”. My Lib Dem colleague, Jean Fooks, proposed amending this to: “Choose the least environmentally damaging option for the final disposal of residual waste.”

The local Labour spin machine then whirred into action – with what has sadly become, since being defeated in May’s local elections, their customary disregard for the truth – claiming “the new Lib Dem administration appears to support building incinerators round Oxford”.

Absolute rubbish, of course, and typical of the cheap debate which overly partisan party politics provokes. Incineration is an emotive topic, and one which should be examined seriously. It’s depressing that Oxford’s Labour group have come to see the environment as no more than a political football.

All of which begs the question: can incineration ever be justified as the “least environmentally damaging option”?

Richard Tomkins, the Financial Times’s Consumer Industries editor, has written a fascinating article, published today, examining the recycling industry. Here’s what he has to say about incineration:

… environmental cost/benefit analysis explains why, paradoxically, it can sometimes be better to incinerate waste than to recycle it. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, which speaks for companies in the packaged goods industry, supports recycling of most materials. However, it points out that some waste materials – crisp packets, yogurt pots, microwaveable meal trays and the like – are simply not worth recycling because it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to collect, clean and transport them. Far better to incinerate them in power-generating, energy-from-waste plants: that way, each unit of energy released from the waste creates an equivalent reduction in demand for electricity generated from fossil fuels.

Paper presents another paradox. “The argument as to whether you should recycle or burn paper has been going on for 25 years,” says Professor Roland Clift of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at Surrey University. “The answer isn’t simple. It depends on the background energy economy of the country where you’re operating.”

To understand why, you need to know two things: first, that incinerating paper, trees and other biofuels is seen as carbon neutral because living matter sucks up as much carbon dioxide from the air while it is growing as it emits when it is burned, and second, that the main newsprint producing countries of Europe (Sweden and Finland) use mainly non-fossil fuels for power generation.

So, as Clift explains, if you are in a country such as Britain where less coal is burned when the demand for energy falls, it makes sense to incinerate used paper in an energy-from-waste plant and import fresh paper from northern Europe, because less coal will get burned overall. “And so it turns out that the net effect is a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”

If there’s one phrase in Mr Tomkins’ piece, I’d like to pick out, and invite Oxford’s Labour group to reflect on, it is this: “The answer isn’t simple.” Incineration might sometimes be the “least environmentally damaging option”, other times it won’t be. The public deserves to hear all the facts to ensure the best, most appropriate, and greenest, decision is taken. Spoon-feeding them puerile propaganda betrays politicians’ duty to frame the debate responsibly.

I have, by the way, exempted Oxford’s Green group from this critique. They, too, are against incineration, at all times – but at least it’s on principle, as the Green Party believes economic growth to be unsustainable. Their answer to excess waste is to impose restrictions on consumer demand, no matter that this would lead to economic recession and a lower standard of living.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, believe society should harness technology to enable environmentally sustainable growth, while shifting taxation away from people’s productive activities (ie, their work) and onto their destructive consumption (eg, air travel).