Can U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism reward burning garbage?

The United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism program could grant carbon credits today to a Mexican garbage incineration project deemed illegal by local authorities, a study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has said.

"The proposal shouldn't be approved," said biologist Jorge Tadeo Vargas, co-author of the study. "The community already said 'no.'"

In December 2011, Mexico's Bordo Poniente landfill -- the biggest landfill in Latin America -- was closed, leaving Mexico City and its metropolitan areas with a 13,000-tons-a-day waste problem. With the city's trash being shipped to landfills in other municipalities, the federal government struck a deal with Mexican cement company CEMEX for the final disposal of the solid waste.

According to the study, the federal government agreed to pay the company 300 pesos ($23.50) per ton to take care of the displaced garbage.

Soon after that, 7,000 tons a day of waste was transported to two CEMEX plants -- Tepeaca in Puebla and Huichapan in Hidalgo -- for incineration, according to Tadeo, a member of the Mexican environmental organization Revuelta Verde.

The United Nations' CDM program had already approved CEMEX's Tepeaca co-incineration project in January 2011, and plans were under way for the submission of a similar proposal for the Huichapan cement plant.

When does garbage become 'biomass'?


Co-incineration replaces part of the conventional fossil fuels used for cement production -- in this case, petroleum coke, a coallike waste from oil refining -- with "biomass." This practice is considered a way to offset or reduce fossil fuel emissions, according to the study.

Learning about CEMEX's deal with the federal government and its effort to earn carbon credits from the CDM -- which can be used to comply with government regulations or sold -- led GAIA to monitor what was happening, Tadeo said. Then word started to come of health issues at Huichapan.

With the help of environmental organizations such as GAIA, the community performed on-site inspections, took samples and investigated what was going on, Tadeo said. After much public pressure, in September 2012 the state government of Hidalgo -- where the Huichapan plant operates -- imposed a ban on waste incineration statewide, declaring it illegal.

"With Huichapan, [the incineration project] did not abide by state laws or to municipal laws," Tadeo said. Hidalgo regulations prohibit the transportation, storage and elimination of solid waste from outside the state.

Nonetheless, in late 2012, CEMEX Mexico submitted its biomass project at Huichapan for the CDM executive board to review. With the CDM's decision drawing near, there are renewed concerns among locals.

Burning recyclables

"If approved, we run the risk of CEMEX lobbying to modify state laws so that they comply with their project," Tadeo said.

According to the proposal, CEMEX aims to substitute up to 21 percent of its fuel requirements with biomass fuels, estimating an annual average emissions reduction of 51,357 tons of greenhouse gases for the duration of the project.

But the proposal doesn't take into account the fact that it's not just biomass being incinerated, said Mariel Vilella, climate policy campaigner with GAIA and co-author of the study. It also doesn't consider the level of toxicity of its emissions, she added.

"Scientific data shows incineration practices release toxic emissions to the atmosphere," Vilella said. Moreover, recyclable waste is being burned, too, she said. She called it an "easy fix" instead of investing in more sustainable waste treatment and recycling practices.

"In any case, carbon credits should represent real emissions reductions, which would not be the case in Huichapan," Vilella asserted.

Karla Arrambide, CEMEX's CDM project management spokeswoman, said, "Whatever CEMEX does, whatever decision they reach for Huichapan, it will always follow the necessary environmental regulations and take into account community concerns."

She added that cement plants and cement kilns "are one of the most environmentally friendly ways to dispose of residues." Given the recent drop in carbon prices, she explained, the project may not go forward.

There are currently four waste incineration projects approved by the CDM in Mexico, all in CEMEX plants. An additional six projects in cement plants are pending approval, GAIA reports.

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