Solid Waste & Recycling

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Managing the disruption risks from climate change

How will climate change affect the waste management sector in Canada? Two ways: The pressures being made on the sector to mitigate its contributions to greenhouse gas, and the risks that climate change poses to the way that the sector operates.


How will climate change affect the waste management sector in Canada? Two ways: The pressures being made on the sector to mitigate its contributions to greenhouse gas, and the risks that climate change poses to the way that the sector operates.

These two pressures were described at the symposium “Business disruption from climate change: risk management for companies and their stakeholders” presented in Toronto on May 18 by the consulting firm Golder Associates, insurance company Marsh, and the law firm Bennett Jones. While the waste management sector was not mentioned in the proceedings, what was said has a great deal of relevance to the readers of this magazine.

Presenters touched on the rising demands that organizations of all kinds limit their “carbon footprint,” or the amount of greenhouse gas for which they are responsible.

The heavy, diesel-powered vehicles used to collect and transport waste mean that the sector’s carbon footprint is both large and resistant to downsizing. Improvements in diesel engines, driver training to manage emissions, effective maintenance programs and more efficient routing are possible ways to reduce the footprint. However, there is not much room to make large carbon-reducing changes.

Processing waste, including landfill management, adds to the sector’s output.

Probably the greatest room for improvement, from a carbon point of view, comes from capturing methane before it has a chance to reach the atmosphere — methane being a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

Private-sector entities in the waste management sector, as in other lines of business, are coming under pressure from their shareholders and financial sources to become more carbon-friendly, or risk an impact on their abilities to raise financing. Many investors and lenders are reluctant to lend to entities seen as “dirty” from a carbon point of view.

As well as financial pressure, there is likely to be increasing regulation in this area. In Ontario, for example, there is a trend towards requiring more landfills to take steps to capture landfill gas and either flare it to turn it into less-impactful carbon dioxide, or use it as an energy source.

Public pressure is being brought to bear, particularly on publicly provided services. For many people, waste collection and disposal are the areas of their municipality’s services that impact them most directly. Municipal collection trucks drive past their home on a weekly basis, with multiple pickups in some cases. Accordingly, they will be more likely to put pressure on their elected representatives to manage the carbon footprint of these operations, more than perhaps any other municipal service.

Being able to demonstrate due diligence in carbon management will become an area of competitive advantage for private service providers, but also for municipalities as they seek to be seen as “greener” than others. Waste management departments in municipalities may find themselves under pressure to show due diligence in reducing their impacts on climate change — and managers who are able to do so may find that their skills are in high demand.

Shifting from mitigation to adaptation

As more people accept that climate change is actually happening, the focus is shifting from finding ways to mitigate one’s climate change impacts to seeing what risks an organization faces that come from climate change, and finding ways to manage those risks. Sometimes, there are potential benefits from climate change, and so organizations need to find ways to maximize their access to those. Presenters at the symposium indicated that one of the most important threats are from catastrophic events. Examples applying to the waste sector might be:

• A larger-than-usual storm washes out a bridge on the only road leading to the landfill;

• A hurricane knocks out most of the refining capacity along the US Gulf of Mexico coast, instantly spiking the cost of diesel fuel and supply shortages that reverberate through the North American market;

• Excess rainfall causes more water to percolate through a landfill, generating larger quantities of leachate, contaminating groundwater with a plume that seems headed straight for the capture zones on some municipal wells;

• An ice storm brings down power lines, so that recycling operations cannot take place, and more waste than usual must be landfilled as a result.

As well as these sudden, catastrophic events, climate change comes in gradual changes that over the years, add up to a lot. Golder Associates presenter John Fahey referred to it as “climate creep.”

For example, consider that pavement is designed to work well within a certain “envelope” of temperature changes. However, fluctuating winter temperatures may cause a gradual increase in the number of freeze-thaw cycles, and this more-variable weather becomes the new normal. One of its effects is that pavement wears out sooner than roads-maintenance workers can patch potholes. Rougher pavement has many side effects — possibly including premature wearing out of waste collection and transfer vehicles traveling that roadway. This increases maintenance costs and reduces the lifespan of vehicles.

Or it could be that more stormy conditions means more snowstorms, days in which collection cannot be made, causing an increase in overtime pay as pickups are added later in the week.

How can organizations, including those in the waste sector, respond? Andrew Little of law firm Bennett Jones says that one of the first steps is assigning a member of senior management the role of determining the organization’s vulnerabilities to climate change.

Next, use a methodical process to determine what those vulnerabilities are. This should use accepted risk-evaluation methodologies, which include determining the likelihood of the event occurring, and the severity of the consequences if the event occurred.

Then, determine what preparation or avoidance steps can be taken.

This must be done in a transparent way. Increasingly, public companies are being called upon by securities regulators to declare their vulnerabilities to climate change as a material concern.

While the effects of climate change are unknown — this is unchartered territory — it is possible to use the current best available understanding of the future environment then determine if operating and capital changes need to be made.

Carl Friesen is Principal of Global Reach Communications in Mississauga, Ontario and frequently writes on waste management and other environmental matters. Contact Carl at 1-289-232-4057 or cfriesen@rogers.com


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