If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon pollution, dumping the equivalent of 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere in 2011 according to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
That finding, among others, shines a light on consumer habits as the key to reducing a carbon footprint from agriculture that accounts for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to half of non-carbon dioxide emissions, though only a tiny fraction of energy-related emissions, UK-based Carbon Action Tracker reports in a briefing released this week.
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“The amount of food waste is related to a country’s development stage,” the organization notes, “and industrialized countries have much higher per capita food wastage carbon footprints than developing nations. This is partly because, in industrialized nations, more waste occurs later in the food supply chain—at the retail and consumer levels—while in developing countries most waste occurs on-farm and during distribution.”
The paper compares and contrasts per capita daily nutritional intake in selected jurisdictions around the world, with the United States, the European Union, Brazil, Australia, and China all exceeding UK National Health Service recommendations for daily calorie and meat intake. Ethiopia, India, and Indonesia fall below the threshold.
“The health benefits of a switch to a low-emissions, more plant-based diet should not be underestimated—in both industrialized and developing countries,” the paper notes. And “the emissions savings associated with a global switch to a healthy, low-emissions diet are estimated at 30% of food-related emissions.”
Carbon Action Tracker points to the need for further research into the “types of low-carbon diet that are best for meeting nutritional requirements in different regions”. It also calls on businesses to ramp up their emissions mitigation efforts on both sides of the food supply chain, adding that policies to “subsidize low-GHG products or discourage high-GHG ones and to promote healthy diets without overconsumption are likely to be needed”.
While the briefing focuses both on supply-side changes in farming practices and demand-side shifts by consumers, “there are physical limitations to what can be achieved on the supply side, and opportunities are scattered,” the organization concludes. But “demand side mitigation can achieve large reductions without compromising global nutritional health.”
The briefing notes that national commitments under the Paris agreement give “relatively little emphasis to agriculture, especially on the demand side,” with no reference to food waste or changing diets, but warns that “without demand-side changes, emission reductions in line with the Paris agreement may be out of reach.” It adds that “the close interdependence between supply and demand—with mitigation potential on one side being dependent on mitigation action on the other—means that both must be addressed.”
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