Global food system emissions threaten achievement of climate change targets

November 05, 2020

Even if greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in the global food system were immediately halted, the remaining greenhouse gasses otherwise produced from global food production would make meeting the Paris Agreement's target of limiting temperature increases to 1.5° Celsius (C) above preindustrial levels very difficult, a new study reports. While much of the effort to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions has focused on reducing emissions from fossil fuel combustion in electricity production, transportation, and industry, the findings reveal the critical contribution from food production-related emissions. The global food system accounts for nearly a third (~30%) of global total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Major sources of emissions include land clearing and deforestation for agriculture and livestock production, production and use of fertilizers, and combustion of fossil fuels in food production and supply chains. In total, the food production worldwide released an average of 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents per year from 2012 to 2017. Despite this, little is known about how the global food system's considerable emissions impact the ability to meet the climate warming targets outlined by the Paris Accord. To address this, Michael Clark and colleagues forecasted continued GHG emissions from the global food system and found that mitigating or reducing food system-related emissions is critical to meeting the 1.5° and 2 °C warming targets. According to the results, business-as-usual food system emissions from 2020 to 2100 could equal as much as 1,356 gigatons - an amount that would exceed the 1.5°C limit between 2051 and 2063, and approximately equal the 2 ° C emissions limit by the end of the century. Clark et al. outline several ways in which these emissions could be significantly reduced through changes in diets, agricultural efficiency and reductions in food waste, which, if fully realized, could result in a carbon neutral or even marginally carbon negative food system.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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