Diet, Food Waste & Kids In 5 Graphics

By Woody Chan 18 February, 2019

Each of us can individually act to cut agricultural GHG emissions - CWR's Chan shares 3 impactful ways

On par with electricity generation, agri accounts for 1/4 of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions & this is projected to grow; a new WRI report offers a menu of solutions - which we can all do
Shifting to a diet with less meat can save the entire annual CO2 emissions of India. Plus, with 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted every year, reducing this can slow climate change & also save money
Having fewer kids & pets could also cut GHG emissions. There are other impactful solutions such as gene editing & capturing cow farts but business & consumers have to step up

Many think of electricity generation and coal as the key driver of climate change but growing the food we eat also adds to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, agriculture is on par with electricity in terms of global GHG emissions at up to 12GtCO2e and this is projected to keep on growing to 15GtCO2e by 2050 (see below).

Clearly this is wrong direction to take if we are to cut the emissions gap and slow climate change. As WRI’s new report Creating a Sustainable Food Future finds, we have to in fact cut agricultural GHG emissions to 4GtCO2e by 2050 if we are to reach the Paris Agreement target of just 2°C warming. To put it into perspective, this reduction from 15Gt CO2e to 4GtCO2e is comparable to the annual GHG emissions of the US and the EU combined.

The reality is we can all take action as individuals by changing our habits

This all seems rather daunting but the reality is we can all take action as individuals by changing our habits, from diets and food waste to having kids/pets. We go through how impactful these three actions can be below but don’t forget to also check out the whole menu of solutions in WRI’s new report.

1. Eating differently can have a big climate change impact

It may not seem obvious but according to WRI, a shift in diets is the solution that can reduce the most agricultural GHG emissions by 2050. At ~2.5 GtCO2e/yr, you could visualise this reduction as the whole of India not emitting any carbon dioxide any more.

To achieve this GHG reduction limits ruminant meat consumption to ~1.5 hamburgers per week

As WRI finds, to achieve this GHG reduction limits ruminant (cows, goats, sheep) meat consumption to 52 calories per person per day by 2050 – about 1.5 hamburgers per week. This is because of meat’s high water & carbon footprint (especially red meat).

It’s not just WRI calling for this diet shift. Researchers from the EAT-Lancet commission also recently came up with a diet that can “save lives, feed 10 billion people and all without causing catastrophic damage to the planet”. This “flexitarian” is essentially a diet of mostly plant-based foods but also small amounts of meat (see above).

How about other solutions then? If you don’t want to have a flexitarian diet what can you do instead to help mitigate the vast agricultural GHG emissions? What are the trade-offs?

2.  Reducing food waste = save money + cut emissions

Globally, around one-third of food produced for human consumption (1.3 billion tonnes) gets lost or wasted every year and the chart below gives a snapshot of where this is happening.

Globally, ~1/3 of food produced for humans (1.3bn tonnes) gets wasted every year

Developed regions waste the most food, mainly in the consumption stage; while in developing regions food is lost mostly in the production and storage phase. So it’s really up to consumers in developed countries to step up.

In total, WRI estimates that reducing food loss and waste globally can reduce agricultural losses by ~1.4 GtCO2e/yr by 2050 – that is comparable to taking out the current annual GHG emissions of Canada, France and Spain combined.

Businesses have a big role to play here. Why not offer different portion sizes and save on ingredient bills? Perhaps even discount coupons to customers who “lick their plates clean”? Could those in developing countries not improve cold storage to save money and keep more food fresh? The opportunities to re-define business-as-usual are endless for the F&B industry.

3. Don’t have kids – have another steak?

Much of our agricultural emissions increase will be driven by population growth. Asia’s population boom, however, may not even peak until 2050. WRI’s report, therefore, calls for replacement-level fertility rates (2.1 children per woman), which would save almost ~1 GtCO2e/yr by 2050 – more than Germany’s current annual GHG emissions.

Could we be looking at a future where those with fewer kids get carbon subsidies?

But how about those who don’t have any kids? Perhaps they should be entitled to a larger cut of steak? Could we be looking at a future where those with fewer kids get carbon subsidies? The same could apply to pets, which account for a shocking quarter of the environmental impacts of meat production in the US. Food for thought…

From gene editing to capturing cow farts… we can do even more

As we have said before, we only have 11 years to get radical on climate change and the 3 actions outlined in the charts is a good start for each and every one of us.

But the truth is we can do even more. Gene editing is needed to improve crop yields, enteric fermentation (cow farts, essentially) has to be reduced, even revolutionary food tech like 3D printed meat could be an alternative in the near future and businesses and investors have to step in.

If it comes down to eating more meat versus keeping your pet dog… what would you choose?

For now however, what we can do is balance trade-offs between diet shifts, reducing food waste, and fewer kids/pets. So if it comes down to eating more meat and leaving food on your plate versus keeping your pet dog… what would you choose?


Further Reading

  • 5 Trends For The Year Of The Pig – Pigs are associated with wealth and a carefree life but they can also be lazy, indulging in the “good life”. What fortunes or mishaps will 2019 bring? How can you capitalise on the Pig’s luck? Get a headstart with China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for a Prosperous Pig Year!
  • Balancing Economy With Environment In China – Professor Asit Biswas from National University of Singapore looks at how the environment has risen up China’s agenda from his first trip in 1981. Plus, see why he think China will make spectacular progress going forward
  • Banking On Granularity To Reduce Climate Blindspots – Climate & water risks are locational but most financial institutions are flying blind, not having mapped their assets. Until they do, they & our savings are exposed. CWR’s Dharisha Mirando expands
  • Food Revolution 5.0: Digital Printing Meat – Food Revolution 5.0., clean meat… Hong Kong is there. Get the latest from Professor Kenneth Lee of Chinese University of Hong Kong and hear more on his 3D printed foie gras
  • Waste To Fashion In Hong Kong – Redress has successfully sorted 41 tonnes of clothes (=1,240 suitcases – avg check in size). Hear from Anneleise Smillie, Redress CEO, on the good, expansion plans & blockages to their circular work
  • Time To Get Radical – Alarm bells are ringing for climate change but we are still wedded to the ‘norm’ and on track to miss even the 2°C target. With time running out and serious implications for Asia’s water resources, China Water Risk’s Debra Tan calls for more flashes of brilliance
  • Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork – China’s new plan on grain supply and storage says saving grain means saving water. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu contemplates challenges & opportunities in reducing food waste for a hungry & thirsty future
  • To Tea Or Not – Black, Green Or Milk? – Tea is the second most drunk beverage after coffee but what does it mean for water, for carbon? Does the type of tea matter? Plus, see what consumers can do to reduce impact
  • Aquaculture: 8 Fishy Facts– Think because we get fish from water that its “Fish forever more”( 年年有“鱼”)? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan shares 8 must-knows on aquaculture that will make you re-think this
  • 5 Facts On Crop Failures Due To Water Risks– In 2016 China suffered 44 million tonnes of crop failure due to droughts and floods. Check out China Water Risk’s Max Leung’s five facts to get the latest info and see which regions are most at risk

Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody conducts research on the water-energy-climate nexus and related hidden risks including rare earths and other critical raw materials essential to the clean tech and high tech industries. His analysis can be found in the 2017 CLSAU Blue Book on “Toxic Phones: China controls the core” which examines pollution driven regulatory risks of minerals behind the mobile interface from the touchscreen to vibrations & sound. Working on this nexus also led him to explore trade-offs with food security and agriculture in the region. Besides research, Woody also coordinates and manages CWR’s flagship monthly newsletter including the management of our extensive network of contributors and has interviewed many water luminaries on CWR’s behalf. Moreover, he oversees all content updates in CWR’s website.Born in Hong Kong, Woody graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2016 with a BA in Geography. Concerned with the extent and effects of wastewater discharge in China, the topic of his dissertation, he joined CWR upon graduation. Furthermore, Woody also leads education outreach for CWR. To date, he has given TEDx talks at Hong Kong Baptist University and Diocesan Boys School on water and climate risks. Additionally, he has been invited to be a keynote speaker at the KGV (ESF School) Alliance. In the longer term, he wants to help improve education in Hong Kong & Asia to account for water and environmental risks.
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