Businesses and governments need to urgently slash the carbon footprint of food if the UK is to achieve its net zero ambition.
The clarion call came from environmental charity Wrap which this week published what it claims to be the most comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) linked to UK food and drink production and consumption ever undertaken.
The analysis shows that equivalent to 35% of the UK’s total emissions arise from producing and eating the country’s food & drink, including emissions generated overseas for imported food.
Wrap estimates the UK food system was responsible for nearly 160 MtCO2e emissions domestically and overseas in 2019. It has been able to map emissions by developing a new model to pinpoint carbon hotspots across the food system and investigate the reductions possible through different types of action.
The work shows that a 50% reduction in food-related emissions by 2030 (in line with a 1.5C trajectory) is possible, but only if urgent action is taken in five priority areas.
The analysis found that businesses must continue to decarbonise their operations, including by using renewable energy and low-carbon refrigerants, heat and transport.
They must also develop a better understanding of emissions throughout their wider supply chains and meet their commitments to zero deforestation in their supply chains.
Further action to reduce food waste is identified as another critical factor, especially for the kinds of food – such as meat – which could have the greatest impact on reducing emissions.
Meeting the 2030 target also requires widespread adoption of government dietary recommendations, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, and more integrated messaging to consumers around food waste and consumption, according to Wrap.
The hospitality and foodservice sector is estimated to account for 5% of UK food system emissions compared with 6% for food manufacturing and 3% for food retail.
Wrap says emissions associated with UK food waste are 36MtCO2 equivalent to 23% of total food system emissions.
The report shows there has been an absolute reduction of around 8% in GHG emissions associated with the UK’s food and drink system between 2015 and 2019. Around 80% of this reduction is due to decarbonisation of the UK’s electricity grid, which most affects the parts of the food supply chain that use significant amounts of electricity including food processing, foodservice, retail and households.
World leaders will gather next month for the crucial COP26 meeting in Glasgow to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. Wrap said food system emissions must be on the table at talks in Glasgow.
“Much attention will rightly be paid to energy generation and transport at COP26, but we ignore the food system at our peril,” said Wrap CEO Marcus Gover. “There is little talk about the contribution that strategies around food and drink can have to climate action, and it is vital we raise awareness and drive action among policymakers and businesses at COP26.”