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Wednesday, 08 August 2012 17:11

The Problem is not with Waste, but with Climate… -how Perceptions Influence Behavior

Written by  Dr. Ulrich Wiegel & Martin Steiner

Recycling is easy and makes us feel good – avoidance is hard and an annoyance

Another important difference should to be noted: solid waste is largely usable. From almost each component (glass, paper, metal, kitchen waste, etc.) more energy can be generated from recycling than the energy expended for its recovery. This also applies to incineration with energy recovery of commingled waste. Because of this, waste avoidance at all cost, i.e. through reduced consumption has not been deemed necessary. The analogous idea to utilize our CO2-waste by extracting and recovering the energy from the carbon present does not work due to its physiochemical properties: certainly it is possible to disassemble CO2, but the energy required is greater than the energy of the reclaimed, disassembled carbon. The envisaged subterranean storage of CO2 at thermal power plants (Carbon Capture & Storage CCS) shows clearly that, for generated CO2, the only option is disposal – either by conventional dumping into the “air ocean”, or by innovative subterranean storage. So, a fundamental partial solution for reducing CO2-waste must be avoidance – in contrast to solid waste with its recyclability – and that means abstaining from consumption, which we are reluctant to do because we love convenience, and because we do not suffer enough immediately from the problem.

With over 100 years of increasing CO2 output, the unspoken assumption has been made that its disposal would not cause environmental damage. Hence no aversion measures or costs have been forced on polluters. Until science could at long last agree that there would be any damage at all, technology and society developed into a state of enormous – because of its free-of-cost – CO2-waste production. The acknowledgement of the damage, and acceptance of the soon-to-be enforced CO2-levies will be, unlike for solid waste, clearly more difficult, as

a) the damage is a future damage, is not clearly defined and not locally felt (honestly, who really is touched by the possible extinction of Bangladesh)
b) the existing social and economic system would be hit hard – one may imagine that all 10 tons CO2 per person per year would be charged per tonne analogous to waste treatment with say 100 € (which is the cost for one tonne of avoided CO2 for renewable energy technologies). Such a cost impost would only be seriously considered by someone who had lost their desire to hold office.
c) for this investment no reliable and auditable outcome can be assured.

The notion that fossil fuel based energy can be universally substituted by renewable sources, or that other technical solutions can be found, thus enabling our current way-of-life to continue, will hardly pass a sound sustainability check. We already see cornfields for fuel production up to the horizon and countless windmills, yet renewable sources cover just 10 % of our energy demand. We can wrap our houses warmly and optimize energy processes, nevertheless additional avoidance will be indispensable for achieving real sustainability.


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