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How low can we go? Greenhouse Gas Reduction in the UK Food System

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on February 12th, 2010

Source: Food Climate Research Network

…the important point is that we are highly likely to need both technological and behavioural change to achieve reductions of this magnitude – and help avoid dangerous climate change.

From the report: How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050.

When it comes to environmental impacts, the usual suspects have been mobility (the way we get around) and energy (the way we heat and light our buildings). However, there’s an equally significant actor in the creation of greenhouse gases: food. Some 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to what we put on our plates.

The UK has its own legally-binding targets to reduce production emissions by 80% by 2050 under the Climate Change Act. In order to make a proportional contribution to these reductions, and taking into account the fact that we need to continue to eat, WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) suggest food-related emissions need to be cut by 70% by 2050. Achieving this is highly likely to require significant changes throughout the UK food system – from production and processing to cooking, the kinds of food we eat and what and how much we throw away.

The aim of this study was thus to determine the feasibility of a 70% cut, where in the food chain cuts could be made, and by how much. In addition, the work estimated the emissions arising from direct and indirect land use change attributable to UK food consumption. This was done by calculating how much land, including forest, is converted annually to agriculture and the CO2 emissions that arise from this process, and attributing an appropriate amount of these emissions to UK food consumption.

As such, this study provides the most accurate inventory of greenhouse gases attributable to UK food consumption to date: the results were striking – and disturbing. As stated above, direct emissions from the UK food chain are estimated to be about 20% of the UK’s total consumption emissions. However, according the method and assumptions used in the study, including the emissions attributable to direct and indirect land use change lifts the proportion of UK consumption emissions attributable to food from 20% to 30% of all UK emissions – or from 152MtCO2 to 253MtCO2. Reducing emissions from food will thus be key to tackling climate change.

This study investigated a range of approaches to making the cuts, constructing three broad thematic scenarios:

The first was an energy-based scenario in which the focus was on (a) the decarbonisation of non-mobile processes, such as food processing, cooking and refrigeration and (b) the decarbonisation of energy used in transport. The result? Cuts of some 57% by 2050. Not enough.

The second was an emissions-led scenario which centred on (a) reductions in direct GHG emissions, such as methane from cows and sheep and nitrous oxide from fertilisers and (b) improved production efficiency, including increased crop yields and improved livestock genetics. The result? Cuts of some 55% by 2050. Again: not enough.

The final scenario considered (a) conservation, through waste avoidance and using wasted food to generate energy and (b) changes to consumption patterns in the UK. The result? Cuts of some 60%. Getting there, but still not enough.

Visit the website for the abstract or full report.

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