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Food Production and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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When it comes to tackling climate change, the focus tends to be on ‘clean energy’ solutions – the deployment of renewable or nuclear energy; improvements in energy efficiency; or transition to low-carbon transport

Indeed, energy, whether in the form of electricity, heat, transport or industrial processes, account for the majority – 76% – of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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The study by Poore and Nemecek (2018) found that almost one-quarter – 24% – of food’s emissions come from food that is lost in supply chains or wasted by consumers. Almost two-thirds of this (15% of food emissions) comes from losses in the supply chain which result from poor storage and handling techniques; lack of refrigeration; and spoilage in transport and processing

The other 9% comes from food thrown away by retailers and consumers. This means that food wastage is responsible for around 6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it’s likely to be slightly higher since the analysis from Poore and Nemecek (2018) does not include food losses on the farm during production and harvesting. To put this in context: it’s around three times the global emissions from aviation. Or, if we were to put it in the context of national emissions, it would be the world’s third largest emitter.46 Only China (21%) and the United States (13%) emitted more

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Food system activities, including producing food, transporting it, and storing wasted food in landfills, produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change

Of these sources, livestock production is the largest, accounting for an estimated 14.5 percent of global GHG emissions from human activities.6 Meat from ruminant animals, such as cattle and goats, are particularly emissions-intensive. World leaders have agreed that in order to avoid the most catastrophic climate change scenarios, average global temperature rise must not exceed 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Even if this goal is met, many climate impacts, such as sea level rise, will likely still continue for centuries (Engelhaupt E., 1008). Imagine a scenario in 2050 where societies have transitioned away from coal and natural gas to wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. In this scenario, public policy and infrastructure investments have made walking, cycling, and public transit the most accessible and popular forms of transportation. Air travel is used only as a last resort. In what is otherwise a best-case scenario, if global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, our chances of staying below the 2° Celsius threshold will still be extremely slim (Weber CL, 2008).

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In essence, climate change is greatly caused by human activities more than the natural processes

Industrialization and agricultural activities are largely responsible for the production of greenhouse gases that promote global warming and other consequences. These threaten wildlife and human existence and as such should be addressed. Renewable energy is the potential rescue of the environment from the negative effects of human activities. Governments and countries thus need to use less of fossil fuels and invest more in renewable energy technology options. These include hydropower, geothermal, wind energy and other reliable sources of environmentally friendly renewable energy sources.

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Weber CL, Matthews HS. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environ Sci Technol. 2008;42(10):3508-13.

Engelhaupt E. Do food miles matter? Environ Sci Technol. 2008;42(10):3482.

Butler RA. Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon. 2014

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