By Kjetil Vikingstad, CEO of Geminor.
By Kjetil Vikingstad, CEO of Geminor.

Scandinavian tax relief on waste incineration will reduce landfilling in Europe

September 27, 2022
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The current need for more energy has emerged as the main reason for removing national taxes on waste incineration in Scandinavia. Whatever the political motivation may be, a lower tax pressure in the Nordic region will help reduce environmentally hazardous waste disposal in Europe, writes CEO Kjetil Vikingstad. Dir. in Geminor, Kjetil Vikingstad.

According to the European Commission, as much as 52 million tons of European household waste went to landfill in 2020, and in some EU countries the share is estimated to be as high as 60% of total household waste. This waste is buried in landfills across the continent, which over time is highly polluting both for soil and groundwater - but also in terms of methane gas emissions.

It is a fact that much of the residual waste that is currently landfilled, i.e. waste that for various reasons cannot be recycled, could be used for energy recovery. But incineration of residual waste has long been seen as an unattractive option by environmental authorities and environmentalists across Europe, and increasingly in Scandinavia.

In Scandinavian countries, where landfilling of household and commercial waste is banned, there has long been a desire to steer the market towards reduced emissions and greater use of waste as a raw material - a sustainable and circular mindset. This ended relatively recently with the introduction of incineration taxes in both Sweden and Norway, a much-discussed move in the waste industry. The Swedish incineration tax was introduced in April 2020, adding a cost on top of the quota obligation that Swedish energy recovery plants already have to deal with. As a result, creating energy from residual waste in Sweden today is relatively expensive compared to other, less efficient plants in the EU.

Since then, the introduction of the tax has been heavily criticized, largely due to a proven lack of environmental impact, rising prices to consumers and a reduction in investment in the industry - as the Swedish Tax Agency has concluded in a report.

However, the Swedish "warnings" have not prevented the Norwegian authorities from introducing a similar, special Norwegian incineration tax, which came into force early this year. The tax currently amounts to NOK 192 per ton of CO2, or around NOK 105 per ton of waste incinerated in the country. Denmark, for its part, has a national special tax on CO2, in addition to quota requirements, as well as a separate waste tax.

Expensive electricity creates new opinions

But almost before the ink is dry and the tax introduced, it seems that tax exemptions on energy recovery are gathering political support again. For if there is one thing that trumps the desire for less waste incineration, it is the desire for more and cheaper energy. The crisis in Europe, led by the war in Ukraine, has shown not only how vulnerable we have become in terms of energy supply, but also that there is huge untapped potential in efficient waste incineration.

Recently, the Swedish government followed up with a proposal to abolish the country's combustion tax, just two years after it was introduced. The argument is to create better conditions for producing more (and presumably cheaper) electricity. On the Norwegian side of the border, Minister of Climate and Environment Espen Barth Eide is also prepared to remove a tax his party voted for - but insists they were against - only a short time ago. The caveat is that another tax on emissions can be found, even if it is higher up the value chain.

Less taxes for more efficient combustion

Whether this change in attitude is more about expensive electricity and angry voters than sustainability is a matter for speculation. In any case, there is little doubt that lower direct taxation of waste incineration, especially in Scandinavia, will have a positive overall effect on the environment. In the longer term, it will reduce European landfilling of residual waste, because it will make more sense cost-wise to use more of the waste for energy recovery in the most efficient plants, rather than landfilling.

Germany's likely move in the opposite direction with the introduction of an excise tax on incineration next year is also likely to send more waste north.

The development and use of more modern and efficient energy recovery facilities - also with the use of more developed treatment plants and CO2 capture capabilities - will make power generation from residual waste more sustainable also in the longer term. In the short term, scrapping the tax could mean a significant increase in the production of electricity in Scandinavia, which is also likely to be reflected in electricity prices.

In any case, the key to a more sustainable world is the introduction of a well-functioning circular economy where significantly lower volumes of residual waste and significantly more reuse and recycling are key. These efforts must not be constrained by high, temporary electricity and gas prices.

But before we achieve our circular goals, we need to make use of the most sustainable solutions available for energy production - which energy recovery from residual waste represents.