How Big A Challenge Is Carbon Neutrality?


The government has set a long-term challenge for the Irish agriculture sector to achieve carbon neutrality, while not compromising our capacity for sustainable food production.

We are still learning just how big a challenge that is.

The latest research report says that in the industrialised countries, eating and food generate 24% on average of the damaging emissions.

It isn’t just the agriculture end of the food chain that must make the effort.

When food is farmed, harvested or caught, it needs to be transported, processed, packaged, distributed and cooked, and any food waste disposed of.

Each step generates the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

According to the new research, in industrialised countries, sectors beyond the farm gate contribute 43% of food system emissions, which is as big as the share coming from primary production (farming, including production of inputs for farming).

And the challenge posed by the global threat of warming climates varies across the world.

In developing countries, food is behind about 39% of emissions (down from 68% in 1990).

The global share of greenhouse gases which can be traced back to food averages out at 34% across industrialised and developing regions.

The latest findings on the emissions challenge come from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger.

Climate action in your fridge – packaging contributes about 5.4% of global food emissions, refrigeration about 5. Food system emissions increased 12.5% from 1990 to 2015,

They got together to produce what they claim is the first emission database of greenhouse gases covering all countries and sectors of the food system.

Their findings were published last week in the Nature Food online journal of top-tier original research on the challenge to sustaining the health of the planet and 10 billion people occupying it by 2050.

The publication reveals food system emissions increased 12.5% from 1990 to 2015.

However, global food production is estimated to have increased more than 40% in that 25-year period.

It had to increase, because the population went up 39%.

But the pressure is now on to do even better.

Food emissions must be reduced, even if climate action tampering with feeding the world runs the risk of something going wrong, and people starving as a result.

All new research and knowledge that helps us understand the huge challenge ahead is welcome.

The authors of the JRC/FAO research say their findings make it possible to estimate the effect of changes in food systems.

For example, it can be calculated how certain consumer behavioural changes, or technological breakthroughs, might affect emissions.

For instance, using renewable energy for food processing could help, and the data compiled by the authors could be used to see exactly how worthwhile that option would be.

Robust data of this kind is needed to understand the complexity of food systems, analyse the emissions from the different food stages, and work on policy tools for transition to more sustainable and informed consumption patterns.

This must be done without upsetting evolution of food systems in response to changes in population, welfare, dietary habits, and technology.

One of the welcome trends confirmed in the new study is emissions increasing at less than one-third of the rate of increase in global food production.

If that continues, population growth need not necessarily mean growing emissions.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for emissions from non-food activities.

They increased at a much faster rate.

As a result, the global food system’s share of total GHG emissions has decreased from 44% in 1990 to 34% in 2015.

The lesson here must be that governments should equally look for emission reduction in non-food areas, where adjustments do not pose the risk of rising global hunger.

Within food systems, they may have as much scope to cut emissions beyond the farm gate as within the farm gate.

Beyond the farm gate, transport and retail emissions (driven largely by refrigeration) are high.

And at the end of the food chain, around 9% of food emissions come from waste and waste disposal.

These are ‘hotspots’ in food systems, usefully identified by the JRC/FAO findings, where efforts to reduce emissions could be intensified.

Emissions from the retail sector have been increasing rapidly, and are now up to three times higher than in 1990.

Included is the industrial and domestic refrigeration estimated to account for 5% of global food system emissions (but 43% of energy consumption within the global retail/supermarket sector).

With refrigeration capacity in developing countries likely to increase, refrigeration will become an even hotter global hotspot for climate action.

It is part of an increasingly energy-intensive global food system, with almost a third of food system emissions coming directly from energy-consumption.

Use of energy (electricity, heat and fuels, including fertiliser and pesticide manufacture) inside the farmgate increased 15% from 1990 to 2015, with the highest increase happening in developing regions.

The food system will therefore need to invest in energy efficiency and decarbonisation to reduce GHG emissions.

We are also reminded that there are six stages of global food chain emissions.

They are land use and land use change; primary production of food commodities, including production of inputs such as fertiliser; food processing; food distribution including packaging, transport and retail; food consumption: including domestic activities; and food waste management.

It may come as a surprise to some that food packaging contributes about 5.4% of total food systems emissions.

‘Food miles’ are therefore less important than packaging, according to the research authors, in a global food system that has become characterised by an increase in convenience and processed food.

Agricultural land-use emission sources include deforestation, degradation of organic soils (including peatlands) due to drainage and fires, and the 80% of global forest removals associated with agricultural expansion.

Agricultural land-use emission are approximately equal to farming (production emissions), each about 40%, with a further 20% from the other sources.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Farming – Stephen Cadogan – 16/03/2021)

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Rural Enterprise Skillnet
Rural Enterprise Skillnet

The Rural Enterprise Skillnet is funded by member companies and the Training Networks Programme, an initiative of Skillnets Ltd. funded from the National Training Fund through the Department of Education and Skills.

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