Food and emissions

We must change what we eat to solve the climate crisis, shows research

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

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Published: 8 November 2020

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

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Even if fossil fuel emissions stop immediately, emissions from the global food system alone could increase global temperatures by more than 1.5°C.

This is the headline finding of new research from an international team led by the University of Oxford.
 
A paper published in the journal Science reveals that, although reducing fossil fuel use is essential to meet global climate targets, those goals are out of reach unless the global food system is also transformed.

The research shows that what we eat, how much we eat, how much is wasted and how food is produced will need to change dramatically by 2050 if we are to achieve the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Shifting to plant-based diets

If current trends continue, emissions from food systems would surpass the 1.5°C target within 30-45 years, the researchers found, and may exceed the 2°C target within 90 years – even if all other sources of greenhouse gas emissions immediately stopped.

If other sources of greenhouse gas emissions reached zero by 2050, the 1.5°C target would be surpassed in 10-20 years and the 2°C target by the end of the century.

‘Discussions on mitigating climate change typically focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, for instance, from transportation or energy production. However, our research emphasises the importance of reducing emissions from the global food system.

‘The good news is, there are many achievable ways rapidly to reduce food emissions if they are acted on quickly. These include both raising crop yields and reducing food loss and waste, but the most important is for individuals to shift towards predominantly plant-based diets.’

DR MICHAEL CLARK
Lead author on the paper, The Oxford Martin School and Nuffield Department of Population Health

Additional benefits

The research makes clear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food systems will require coordinated action across sectors and between national governments.

The changes would have additional benefits, for example reducing water pollution and scarcity, increasing biodiversity and reducing the rate of diet-related health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
 
The study estimates how greenhouse gas emissions would change in a large range of possible paths for the global food system.

It assessed these emissions projections using the GWP* metric recently developed at the Oxford Martin School. This new metric allows more accurate reporting of different greenhouse gases role in global temperature changes, reflecting the difference between long-lived carbon dioxide and the short-lived gas methane, which is produced by rice cultivation and farmed ruminants such as cows.

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