Food system emissions need attention at Biden's climate summit

Food system emissions need attention at Biden's climate summit
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President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE is convening a Leaders Summit on Climate later this month as the Biden-Harris administration looks to reestablish U.S. leadership in the global effort to address climate change.  There will surely be much discussion about coal-fired power plants, electric vehicles and clean energy jobs. But the world won’t meet the climate goals of the Paris Agreement without addressing emissions from one surprising and under-discussed source: the food system. 

Recent studies estimate that the food system contributes about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. For perspective, this represents more global greenhouse gas emissions than from the combustion of any individual fossil fuel, including coal. The figures are substantial even at a country level. In the United States, for example, food system emissions constitute about 25 percent of total national global greenhouse gas emissions. In Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, the food system generates over 70 percent  of total emissions. In China, the share of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to its food system is smaller (less than 20 percent), but these emissions are larger in absolute terms than for any other country and constitute nearly 5 percent of global emissions.

When asked to think of the food system, many people may conjure up images of their favorite dishes or maybe just their next meal. However, it takes a long chain of events and an increasingly complex global infrastructure to put that food on our plates. Last month’s blockage of the Suez canal, in which thousands of livestock were stranded on their transcontinental journeys, underscores the intertwined web of activities upon which our food system is built. The food we eat requires clearing land for farming and livestock, manufacturing fertilizers, producing plastics for packaging, distributing produce and beverages to supermarkets, disposing of food waste, and many steps in between. Each of those steps generates greenhouse gas emissions. 

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The food system requires significant amounts of energy to operate, with attendant carbon dioxide emissions. From gasoline in tractors to natural gas for food processing plants, from electricity for storage and refrigeration to even the act of cooking, the global food system is responsible for roughly 30 percent of total energy demand. But the food system also emits other important greenhouse gases, such as methane from cattle and sheep and nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, two potent greenhouse gases. Given the magnitude of all these emissions, it is important not only to address fossil fuels, but to manage the entirety of the food system. 

Taking a system approach rather than looking to individual components can unlock novel climate change mitigation opportunities. The issue of food waste is a good example. From one standpoint, reducing food waste would simply diminish methane emissions from solid food in landfills. By adopting a systems view of the issue, however, it is possible to see that reducing food waste can cut emissions across the entire food supply chain.  If we eat more of what we produce, there could be less pressure to convert forests to agricultural land, less demand for food packaging, and less energy required to distribute food, thereby saving some portion of the 8-10 percent of emissions that are associated with producing and distributing food that is ultimately never eaten.

Other food system interventions merit further exploration. Studying how different parts of the system interact can identify new opportunities for energy efficiency and other synergies (e.g., interplay of production, packaging and distribution). Greater research and development into agricultural technology, such as in the field of precision agriculture, can enable farmers to grow more food on less land with fewer greenhouse gases. The electrification of freight transport and the deployment of stand-alone solar power generators (e.g., at farms and supermarkets) will lower emissions across the food chain. Exploring how changes in diet affect food-related emissions also provides useful insights. Managing agricultural lands to better serve as negative emissions technologies — i.e., that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in soils and plants — could play a key role in achieving a net-zero future. Improving data and modeling systems will help to better measure the impacts of options and identify opportunities to scale them up. This, in turn, will enable the U.S. and other countries to include more food system mitigation actions in their climate change plans. Finally, encouraging the private sector to make more climate-smart investments throughout the system is key.  

While discussion of emissions from food has historically been centered on agriculture and land-use changes, other aspects of the food system are now beginning to receive more attention in the media and elsewhere, such as beef substitutes, kitchen gas stoves and supermarket refrigerators. But the increasing coverage has not been accompanied by a significant shift in climate policy. For example, a review of Nationally Determined Contributions — the climate action plans submitted by governments to advance the Paris Agreement — found that they lacked specific food system emissions targets beyond agriculture and recommended that countries should adopt a food system approach to better identify and exploit emission reduction opportunities.

Effectively tackling food system emissions also requires stronger international climate cooperation. As noted above, the food system is global, which means, for example, that food demand in one country can stimulate emissions in another (e.g., from deforestation to support coffee and palm oil exports). Moreover, economic growth and shifting dietary preferences, notably in emerging economies and other developing countries, have an impact on food consumption patterns and related emissions.  As an illustration, China’s food emissions rose by 40 percent from 1990 through 2015 as its economy grew, a pattern that may be repeated in other countries as they develop.  

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We must prepare for a future global food system that will need to support a world population approaching 9 billion people within 15 years (i.e., one billion more than today).  To do so, it is important to enhance international cooperative action, for example, by expanding research into strengthening low-carbon agriculture practices worldwide, by investing more in capacity building (notably, for poorer countries), by spurring innovation in low-carbon technologies and business practices, by promoting cooperation and cross-country exchanges and by increasing international climate finance for investments that reduce food system emissions.

Food is vital for human well-being, but its climate impact must be managed. We need stronger domestic and international efforts to reduce food system emissions. The Leaders Summit on Climate provides an opportunity for action.

Philippe Benoit is managing director, energy and sustainability, at Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050, and is adjunct senior research scholar with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Kevin Karl is a research associate with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.