Listen to the facts, not the fiction

In this blog, Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, reasons that an independent body to hold governments to account on climate change is needed.

Neil Grundon is deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management

‘Express five sevenths as a decimal’. It was the sort of question that would start to bring me out in a sweat, and bring on uncontrollable bowel movements as an 11-year-old.

The first problem was that there were no discernible numbers in the above sentence, the longhand brought out the writer in me not the mathematician. The second was that the internet had yet to be invented, it was 1979 after all, and I couldn’t just type it into my phone, which meant having to ‘work it out’.

Neil Grundon is deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management

If I planned the lesson correctly, I figured that I could break and sharpen enough pencils to get me through to double art. If I didn’t, then it meant writing a conclusion. This was easy in an exam, as more often than not, I would resort to longhand and answer ‘five sevenths expressed as a decimal is nearly one’ – it would win me no marks but avoided me being labelled as a complete moron.

There is an enormous amount of hyperbole around climate change, phrases such as ‘the seas are boiling’ or ‘the forests are burning’ are bandied around with ease. It is worth remembering however, that climate change is a science and therefore percentages and decimals are very important. This is why I prefer to defer to experts when it comes to calculating emissions and degrees of temperature change, as these are what we are trying hardest to reduce and control.

Politicians of course, prefer hyperbole when talking about climate change. They think it makes them sound more passionate and, let’s not forget it allows them some wiggle room when they get the sums wrong – especially around an election.

Take the building of new Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities, we know this is never going to be a vote winner, but let’s at least get the facts right.

Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), funded by the Scottish Government, produced a report last October on Scottish energy which basically said EfW facilities were worse than landfill for carbon reduction.

Surprise, surprise, the report, entitled ‘Climate change impacts of burning municipal waste in Scotland’ has just been reissued with (and I quote): ‘some changes to the methodology and results’.

A note to the revised version revealed that: ‘…the carbon impact of incineration is 27% lower than landfill compared to 15% in the October study’. Of course, by then the damage had been done. By May this year the electorate had already voted and who, except those of us in the industry, will have given a damn that ZWS got their numbers wrong.

We need an independent body to hold governments to account on these figures, it is not enough to throw them out there without some sort of fact-checking exercise taking place.

The Office for Environmental Protection, the new environmental watchdog for England (one wonders how it will work with devolved administrations), is a good place to start, although I would like to understand more about its focus and mandate and how exactly it will work.

Its role is to advise Government and hold public authorities to account for their implementation of environmental law, but it does seem as if it has a metaphorical (green) mountain to climb, not least when it comes to the topic of trading carbon emissions, something that sounds eminently sensible given the global effort that is going to be needed.

Ironically Scotland – in common with many of its Nordic neighbours – lacks the necessary geological conditions for landfill anyway. Unlike its Nordic neighbours however, Scotland has been woefully slow in establishing Energy from Waste plants, which is a pity for a nation of great engineers. My wife is Glaswegian and her grandfather worked at Yarrow shipyards, so I am well versed in the brilliance of Scottish engineering.

That aside, until we can be confident that the information we are given – and on which so many important decisions are made – is correct, then we will be at the mercy of those who seek to chose headlines and hyperbole over hard facts.

And – for those of you wondering if my maths has improved. I’ll leave you with the thought that if I was back in the exam room and asked to express the originally quoted figure of 15% versus the amended 27%, I would say that Energy from Waste is nearly doubly better for the environment than landfill. It really should be that simple.

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