‘A major oversight’

New 14-country assessment reveals missed opportunity to cut at least one-fifth of emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 23 March 2022

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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Food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste account for nearly a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, food systems are startlingly absent from most countries’ official national emissions-reduction plans, according to new research published today by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

Food and emissions

Changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 gigatonnes a year.

This conservative estimate is slightly more than the combined emissions from global transport and residential energy use in 2019, and is equivalent to at least 20% of the cut needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change. 

Food systems and climate plans

Ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation, the Global Alliance has comprehensively assessed how 14 countries – including China, Germany, Senegal, the UK and the US – have incorporated food systems in their national climate plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

These assessments, country case studies and a summary report highlight the opportunities for governments to use food systems transformation to drive significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as other health, environmental and social benefits. 

‘Our research reveals some alarming gaps between countries’ stated levels of climate ambition and their lack of workable plans to realise the significant benefits from changing the way we produce, process, consume, and transport food.

‘Without transforming industrialised food systems, it will be impossible to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees and guarantee food security. Fortunately, our work shows that thinking about food differently opens up many pathways to lower emissions.’

PATTY FONG
Climate programme director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Key findings from the report

None of NDCs fully accounts for emissions from food imports, particularly those linked to deforestation and the destruction of nature and ecosystems. New NDCs can take the lead from UK and EU pledges to tackle imported emissions, and the Glasgow Leaders’ COP26 pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

Germany is the only country that commits to move away from harmful subsidies that prop up intensive agricultural practices and contribute to higher emissions – such as chemical-intensive agriculture, intensive livestock production and the production of ultra-processed foods.

None of the plans assessed includes specific measures to promote healthy and sustainable diets, although this has the potential to significantly reduce emissions (by 0.9 gigatonnes annually), and provide other health and environmental benefits. For example, although livestock accounts for around 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, there is no reference to livestock production in the country’s NDC.

‘There’s no time to lose: governments need immediately to start looking at food systems transformation as a critical tool for driving down emissions and preventing catastrophic levels of warming.

‘The good news is that work is already happening and many of the solutions already exist. We need better coordination and a systemic approach. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution; our toolkit can help governments reap the benefits of food systems transformation in line with other domestic policy priorities.’

PATTY FONG
Climate programme director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Lost or wasted food

One-third of all food produced in the world – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted every year. However, France is the only country whose NDC includes comprehensive measures to reduce food loss and waste.

China passed an anti-food-waste law last April, accompanied by a large-scale ‘clear your plate’ campaign, but this is not reflected in its NDC. Food waste and loss in the US have a greenhouse gas footprint equivalent to 4% of the country’s total emissions, however the country’s NDC doesn’t include measures to address this.

Colombia, Senegal, and Kenya have the most ambitious measures in place to promote agroecological and regenerative locally led agriculture practices, which are less emissions-intensive than industrial farming methods. 

Countries have been encouraged to submit revised NDCs ahead of the next global UN climate meeting, COP27, in Egypt in November 2022. They must do so by 2025 at the latest.

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