A safe limit to global warming won’t be possible without tackling food production emissions along with fossil fuels—but there are plenty of grassroot actions that can do both, says a new analysis.
“It’s sometimes argued that we should focus on one or the other. This is a false dichotomy,” argue researchers from Our World in Data in a new report. While drastically cutting energy emissions is imperative, the research team says, it’s a serious mistake neglect the harrowingly large climate footprint of business-as-usual modes of global food production.
Food system emissions currently make up anywhere from 25% to 33% of the global annual total, with factors like land use changes (especially deforestation), fertilizers, methane from cattle and rice production, and supply chain emissions all contributing. Energy, by contrast, accounts for 66% to 75%.
Under a business-as-usual food production scenario, the researchers say, humanity would emit “two to three times” the remaining carbon budget to keep average global warming to 1.5°C.
“Let’s be clear on what this means,” Our World in Data says in a release. “If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow and eliminated all other emissions, food production alone would take us past our 1.5°C target by mid-century.”
To have a 50% chance of keeping global heating below the 2°C threshold while keeping the food production system untouched, “we would have to reduce all non-food emissions to zero within 10 to 12 years.”
Far easier, then, to tackle food production emissions. And among the lowest hanging fruit in this regard is food waste.
“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter, beaten only by China and the U.S.,” says Our World in Data. “At least 6% of global greenhouse emissions come from wasted food,” three times that produced by aviation. Halving global food waste and loss (some of which is due to a lack of refrigeration) would lead to a 27% drop in food-related emissions.
Ensuring that every human being on the planet has adequate healthy food, rather than a current system that overproduces for some regions and leaves others in hunger, would cut emissions by 30%.
Best farm practices designed to reduce emissions intensity offer an even more substantial path to a smaller food footprint (40% reduction), as does a plant-rich diet (48% reduction).
“Eating less meat and dairy—especially beef and lamb‚ is one of the biggest ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint,” the organization writes. But while the embrace of a plant-rich diet needs to be global, it does not need to be vegan, with health imperatives demanding some animal products and, in the case of “many low-income countries,” in greater proportion than people consume today.
Our World in Data found that partial adoption of all the options would reduce food emissions by 63%. Full adoption of all options by 2050 would see net-negative emissions—mainly because actions like reducing meat consumption and improving crop yields would leave more land to flourish in its wild state and sequester more carbon.