Update on GHG emissions from the waste sector in Europe

August 9, 2021


On 27 May 2021, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published the Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990–2019 and inventory report 2021 as EU’s official inventory submission for 2021 under the UNFCCC and also under the Kyoto Protocol (KP).[1] The key sources of emissions in the waste sector or “Sector 5 Waste” in 2019 were methane emissions from Managed Waste Disposal on Land (5A1) that, despite the greatest decrease of all waste-related emissions, still account for 62 % of waste-related GHG emissions in the EU-KP[2] in 2019 (Figure 7.4).

Emission reporting from the waste sector in the EU is carried out in four subcategories according to the IPCC 2006 Guidelines, the first three referring to emissions from solid waste:

  • 5.A Solid waste disposal,
  • 5.B Biological treatment of solid waste,
  • 5.C Incineration and open burning of waste, and
  • 5.D Wastewater treatment and discharge.

Total emissions from waste in the EU decreased by 43.8 % from 240 Mt in 1990 to 135 Mt in 2019. In 2019, emissions decreased by 1.1 % compared to 2018. Reductions from category 5.A solid waste disposal on land make up 86 % of total emission reductions in the waste sector (between 1990 and 2019). Emissions from the waste sector show a continuously decreasing trend during the last years, but as many countries with large emissions from this sector already decreased emissions since 1990 by more than 70 % and most technical mitigation options are implemented in those big countries, the declining emission trend is slowing down.

As it is visible from the figure, other source categories (such as 5.C Incineration and open burning of waste) in the waste sector do not contribute to a key source. This is because only emissions from waste incineration without energy recovery are reported under the waste sector, which is practically non-existent in Europe. Emissions from incineration with energy recovery are reported under the energy sector i.e. the “Sector 1 Energy” [3] in two sub-categories as follows:

  • Under category “1.A.1.a Public Electricity and Heat Production – Other Fuels (CO2)” fall CO2 emissions from waste incineration plants with energy recovery, whose main economic activity is power and heat production. Main activity producers i.e. public utilities are defined as those undertakings whose primary activity is to supply the public. They may be in public or private ownership.[4] Other fuels cover mainly the fossil part of municipal solid waste incineration where there is energy recovery, including plastics, hazardous waste, bulky waste and waste sludge. In 2019, the share of CO2 emissions from other fuels in this category amounted to 41137 kt CO2, which is an increase by 283 % at EU-KP level between 1990 and 2019 (from 10745 kt CO2 in 1990 to 41137 kt CO2 in 2019).[5] The emissions increased in all countries except for Latvia. Germany alone is responsible for 32% of the increase in the whole EU-KP over the last 29 years.
  • Under category “1.A.4.a Commercial/Institutional – Other Fossil Fuels (CO2)” fall CO2 emissions from waste incineration plants with energy recovery, whose main economic activity is the treatment of waste.[6] CO2 from other fossil fuels in this category increased by 745% between 1990 and 2019 in the EU – from 748 kt CO2 (1990) to 6325  kt CO2 (2019)[7]. About 95% of these emissions in the EU-KP come solely from Italy.

Hence, approximately 50 million tonnes of CO2 are released yearly from European waste incinerators. The numbers show clearly that in contrary to declining emissions from landfills, GHG emissions from waste incineration with energy recovery have been increasing significantly. Therefore, following this logic, the right title of this article should have been an Update on GHG emissions from the waste AND ENERGY sector in Europe.



As a Party to the ⁠UNFCCC⁠, Germany publishes national emission inventories of GHG every year under the same principle as the EU. The total national emissions from the waste and recycling sector reported were 9 Mio t CO2eq in 2020. They were distributed as follows: 77.9% originated from the landfills (7 Mio t), 10.7% from wastewater treatment (1 Mio t), and 11.4% (1 Mio t) were other emissions inclusive organic treatment of solid waste.[8]

Emissions from incineration with energy recovery are reported under the energy sector under the same principle to avoid double counting.[9] In Germany, all facility-based waste incineration either is tied completely to energy generation or takes place in the crematorium sector. The CO2 emissions from waste incineration with energy recovery have grown by 236% from 4121 kt CO2 in 1990 to 13 847 kt CO2 in 2019.[10] Since 2005, waste inputs in waste incineration plants and for co-incineration have been increasing, as a result of a prohibition on landfilling of non-pretreated settlement waste. While increased use of waste in this area produces additional emissions, it helps prevent methane emissions from landfills.[11]


A way forward to reduce emissions from waste – views in Europe on priorities

Different stakeholders hold different positions on desired way of EU waste policy development and on the role of Waste-to-Energy Plants in reducing emissions.

The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), an umbrella association of the operators of Waste-to-Energy (WtE) plants across Europe, emphasizes the very specific hygienic function of WtE plants to remove pollutants, reduce the waste volume and treat the waste that cannot be prevented or recycled. CEWEP advocates for placing the focus on waste prevention and source separation, so that the waste that could be prevented and recycled does not enter the waste incineration plants and that results in less emissions from the WtE. Another way forward, they state, could be innovations like carbon capture technologies that have the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the sector or even make it carbon negative. Although some European WtE plants are exploring this, the technology is in an early stage and not yet commercially viable. Another future way to save GHG emissions via WtE could be a production of hydrogen from WtE via electrolysers and its use in city buses and waste trucks, replacing diesel.[12]

A report by an independent England-based consultancy Eunomia from December 2020 represents a view that incineration should not be considered an ideal solution for reducing the carbon emissions from waste treatment for the situation in United Kingdom.[13] In the UK, CO2 emissions from waste incineration with energy recovery have grown by 2468% from 232 kt CO2 in 1990 to 5957 kt CO2 in 2019.[14]

On 14 July 2021, the European Commission (EC) adopted a package of proposals to make the EU’s climate policies fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The intent behind the package is to make the European Green Deal a reality and Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

One proposal of the package is the reform of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).[15] The reform should include a tightening of the existing EU ETS and the application of emissions trading to new sectors. The municipal incinerators remain, as they were until now, exempted from the EU ETS and the proposal for revision does not touch upon them, leaving more than 500 European WtE plants with no obligation to comply with emission caps set in the EU ETS.

This is the current state despite the fact that a voluntary inclusion of MSW incinerators under ETS Article 24 is not working as desired: to date, only Denmark and Sweden have included MSW incinerators under the ETS.[16] Waste incineration plants in Sweden were added into the system in 2013 and the experience so far has been a non-functioning market with a surplus of allowances where the emission cap was not tight enough to drive a significant reduction in emissions. It is a challenge to allocate the cost for allowances in a fair and sustainable manner.[17]



According to EU’s current methodology for GHG reporting, the emissions from the European waste sector are declining rapidly. Between 1990 and 2019, emissions from the waste sector were reduced by more than 100 million tons of CO2 equivalent, 90% of which was related to the utilization/destruction/reduction of methane from landfills, and also related to policy measures like the 2005 ban on landfilling of non-pretreated waste in Germany. However, emissions from MSW incineration with energy recovery are not considered in the waste sector, but in the energy sector to prevent double counting. Unlike the decrease in emissions from landfilling, the CO2 emissions from WtE in Europe have risen about 50 million tonnes in the same time period. Hence, there is a shift of emissions from the waste to the energy sector.

Although the emissions from incineration with energy recovery do not technically count to the waste sector, and incineration can avoid methane leaks from landfills compared to mixed landfills; it is a consensus with the strategic goal of carbon neutrality that WtE incineration, like all the other industries, must contribute to the greenhouse gas mitigation. In addition, the increase emissions of waste incineration facilities raises thinking from another point of view, people still need to promote waste reduction from the source of production and living system, as well as promote the further improvement of the recycling system.



(written by Dana Vyzinkarova; reviewed by Liu Xiao, Cai Songliang; translated by Yin Yue)


[1] Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990–2019 and inventory report 2021.EEA 2021. EEA/PUBL/2021/066. https://www.eea.europa.eu//publications/annual-european-union-greenhouse-gas-inventory-2021
[2] KP-Kyoto Protocol, meaning EU-27 including Iceland and England.
[3] For more information refer to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, Volume 2, page 1.15.
[4] EEA 2021, p. 114.
[5] EEA 2021, p. 128.
[6] EEA 2021, p. 302, 316.
[7] EEA 2021. p. 316 in the PDF (i.e. p. 294 in the printed version).
[8] Data from the XLS table related to the Report “Climate Action in Figures (2020) – Facts, Trends and Incentives for German Climate Policy 2020 edition. https://www.bmu.de/publikation/climate-action-in-figures-2020/
[9] Submission under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol 2021: National Inventory Report for the German Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990 – 2019, May 2021. https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/5750/publikationen/2021-05-19_cc_44-2021_nir_2021_0.pdf Page 722.
[10] EEA 2021, p. 128.
[11] EEA 2021, p. 165
[12] European Waste-to-Energy Sector will be fit for climate neutrality before 2050. 21 June 2021. https://www.cewep.eu/climate-neutrality-before-2050/
[13] Eunomia Research & Consulting 2020. Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill.
[14] EEA 2021, p.128.
[15] See the complete list of proposals at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_3541
[16] Zero Waste Europe: The benefits of including municipal waste incinerators in the Emissions Trading System Policy Briefing – April 2021
[17] Ellen Philipsson. 2020. Emissions trading for waste incineration plants with energy recovery in Sweden, Master thesis (2020). http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1440544&dswid=1082