Infrastructure Critical to Tackling Climate Emergency

10 September 2021

Infrastructure Critical to Tackling Climate Emergency
Tim Walker, arc21’s acting CEO, argues that the case for developing modern, locally based waste infrastructure is clear.


Tackling climate change and achieving Net Zero is a challenge that will – if we are serious – have implications for how we live, what we consume and what we produce. As individuals that challenge can look insurmountable – can I really make a difference by recycling more or choosing more sustainable products?
The answer is a resounding “yes”. Your positive choices encourage other positive choices. Your preferences influence what Government will prioritise and your buying power will help shape how business and industry operate.
Individuals alone, however, can’t deliver every necessary change. We need Government to create frameworks which reward sustainable behaviours and innovation, but we also need to utilise the power of technology and infrastructure.
In the waste sector, a critical component of the future is to build a Circular Economy (one which minimises the production of waste, uses materials for as long as possible and maximises what’s left over) and reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. In this space individuals have already changed behaviours, increasing recycling rates locally over the past 20-years from negligible levels to almost 50%.
That’s only part of the equation. Although we recycle more, we’re also producing more waste. Northern Ireland councils are collecting around 10% more waste now than they were eight years ago and during the pandemic the trend has unfortunately been to send more waste to landfill. We’ve also got into the unsustainable habit of exporting more and more of our waste overseas. What happens if those export markets close or if costs become prohibitive? Wouldn’t that waste be better served supporting Northern Ireland’s Circular Economy by creating and supporting jobs here instead of elsewhere?
Developing locally-based infrastructure – along with individual, Government and business action – is an essential part of the solution for the local waste sector. People’s enthusiasm for new infrastructure, however, is often directly correlated to where the infrastructure is located. While that’s understandable and may even be a natural response, it’s not a sensible basis upon which to plan and deliver the critical needs of society.
The Case for New Infrastructure
It’s natural that people want to question and challenge the assumptions behind new infrastructure. That’s how democracies work, and it can help projects evolve and improve. At some point, however, once the challenges are addressed, emotions need to be put aside and decisions made based upon the facts. Some issues raised about arc21’s proposals include:
Northern Ireland is currently exporting or landfilling around 400,000 tonnes of waste annually; we absolutely need modern infrastructure to manage the rubbish we’re responsible for creating. That’s the view of arc21’s waste professionals and the three sets of professional planners who have previously recommended the project. It’s also supported by local and central governments’ waste plans.
More recently, Tolvik, one of the UK’s leading waste data consultancies concluded that even with arc21’s facilities and a big jump in recycling to 65%, by 2035 Northern Ireland will still produce 124,000 tonnes more rubbish than we have the capacity to deal with. The facilities are deliberately sized to meet the specific needs of arc21’s councils.
Some object to the project on the ground of cost or contractual commitments. That’s quite a conclusion to make given that the procurement exercise is not yet complete – the final business case and contract can only be completed after planning permission is granted. This is a normal approach which is used to reduce risk to councils and allow professional officers to assess whether the project would provide value for money. Only at this stage can costs be determined and a recommendation be made to the councils to either support or terminate the project.
Only after following this rigorous process to assess value for money (see here), will arc21’s councils have the best opportunity for a final say on whether to award a contract.
arc21’s technology works. It’s tried and tested, and is used extensively across the UK, Ireland and Europe. Similar facilities using a mix of MBT (which will increase recycling rates by up to 10%) and Energy from Waste continue to be commissioned in the UK.
While it’s tempting to believe that there’s some new “wonder technology” waiting just over the horizon which will solve all our problems that’s just not the case. Everything will always be better tomorrow – except this just delays making a decision. In the era of the Climate Emergency, we need these facilities now; we should have built them years ago. We need to invest in a solution that works – one which means that we don’t sleepwalk into a crisis should our critical waste services fail.
Planning Matters
Invariably, infrastructure projects will be challenged over safety issues, location (too close to / too far from housing), traffic levels or their visual impact to name but a few. These are all hugely important, especially for the local community and for a local government body such as arc21.
They are the reason, however, for our rigorous planning system. The independent Planning Appeals Commission has already considered all these matters and endorsed the proposal. Other bodies such as the Public Health Agency have also been consulted without raising issues whilst planning officials are again considering all these matters.
arc21 welcomes independent scrutiny, but after seven years in the planning system it’s time to make a positive evidence-based decision.