The aim of the Paris Agreement is to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius—ideally 1.5 degrees—compared to pre-industrial levels.
The recent study concludes that if all non-food-related emissions were immediately halted from now to 2100, food industry emissions alone would push the world past the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal between 2051 and 2063.
Even in the absence of fossil fuels, emissions from food production could still bring the world close to the accord’s 2 degrees limit by 2100. “We’re at the point that we need to start doing everything now, and ideally should have started changing behavior 20 years ago,” Dr. Michael Clark, a lead author on the study, tells Food Tank.
According to the United Nations, food systems account for between 21 to 37 percent of total global emissions. The University of Oxford study, which excludes transportation, points to a number of sources: land clearing and deforestation, the use of fertilizers and agrichemicals, gas and manure produced by livestock, rice paddies, and the combustion of fossil fuels in food production and supply chains.
Emissions are also on track to increase as global food production ramps up. The demand for food is expected to double by 2050, according to the UN. And the study points out that, as countries become more affluent, diets and caloric consumption will change, necessitating even more cropland.
To decelerate emissions, the authors call for “rapid and ambitious” changes to the food system. They offer several suggestions: adopt plant-rich diets and cut back on surplus calories, improve crop genetics, reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent, and increase the efficiency of food production—for example, apply fertilizer more precisely. But they stress that no single change is sufficient.
Clark emphasizes the urgent need for change. “Climate change and other environmental degradation needs to be communicated in a way that stresses people are currently dying, losing jobs, [and] migrating right now,” he tells Food Tank.
More research is still needed to better understand food-related emissions, Clark tells Food Tank, including data on low-income regions and subnational food consumption patterns.
Photo courtesy of Shaun Coward, Unsplash