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Climate gap report: food

The next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Yet, according to new research by Ethical Consumer, we are not cutting emissions fast enough across any of our key lifestyle areas - including in our diets. So what changes do we need to make when it comes to food and how far are we from getting there?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler discuss the findings from Closing the Climate Gap - A Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Consumer Lifestyles in the UK, a new report by Ethical Consumer.

Food accounts for 26% of our total consumer emissions. Yet, in 2021, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from food are increasing, pushing us in the wrong direction when it comes to climate breakdown.

If we are to reverse this trend, the report highlights three key actions that all consumers must take.

  1. Reduce meat consumption by 20%
  2. Reduce dairy consumption by 20%
  3. Reduce food waste

In this page, we explore these actions: why they are necessary, how far we are from them, and the changes that businesses and governments can make to ensure we achieve these goals. We call on consumers to not only reduce their own emissions in the areas we have identified, but to also consider getting engaged with political campaigns trying to persuade the government and companies to take some of the actions identified too.

What is the Climate Gap report?

Ethical Consumer's first Climate Gap report was published in October 2021, to track progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK. The report helps identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

Called 'Closing the Climate Gap', the report's aim is to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030. A second key aim of the project is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments.

The report has four sections on the areas where our lifestyle climate impacts are the biggest: food, housing, transport and consumer goods, covering 75% of combined total consumer emissions. It compares where consumer behaviour is in these areas against 2030 targets from reports issued by the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC). Read more about the Climate Change Committee's targets on our campaign page.

Food and the climate gap

The table below summarises what we think are the three most important opportunities for decarbonisation in the food impact area: meat, dairy and food waste. It also shows that, for the one area where we have year-on-year data, it appears that impacts increased rather than reduced.

Estimates of emissions from our food differ wildly:

  • DEFRA estimates food and drink consumed in the UK at about 13% of our emissions but says that this excludes land use change like deforestation. [1]
  • WRAP estimates it to be 21%. [2]
  • A 2010 assessment by Cranfield University put it at 30% with land use change.

There are two big reasons for the disagreement. Firstly, emissions differ wildly depending on how you produce the food. Secondly, nobody is sure how to count the emissions of land use, partly because it depends on what the land would have been if you hadn’t farmed it.

When you are aiming for deep decarbonisation then land opportunity costs loom larger, because you have to use every resource to its maximum potential. And land can absorb carbon through restoration of ecosystems, or through biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Taking this into account can double the effective emissions of food. [3]

Climate impact of meat and dairy

By far the biggest way that consumers can reduce the greenhouse gas and land impacts of their food is reducing their consumption of products from ruminant animals (cows, sheep and goats), due to their methane impact and the land impact of grazing.

Below is one estimate of UK diets, which includes an estimate of emissions from actual land use change, although not the full opportunity costs of land use. [4]

UK diet Tonnes CO2e per year
High meat eaters 2.6
Medium meat eaters 2
Low meat eaters 1.7
Vegetarians 1.39
Vegans 1

The CCC’s Balanced Scenario includes a 20% reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030 and a further 15% meat reduction by 2050.

Climate impact of food waste

WRAP estimates that food waste makes up 3.6% of our emissions, because it has to be replaced with further production. [5] Householders account for about 70% of that. [6] The CCC includes a 50% cut in food waste on 2007 levels by 2030.

What other reductions are possible from food?

Emissions from agriculture can be further reduced through changing production methods – for example, using cover crops to reduce emissions from soil, and anaerobic digestion to reduce those from manure. These are part of the CCC’s scenarios, but it is not clear how consumers can help with them, so we aren’t tracking them at this stage.

The CCC’s scenarios also involve significant restoration of forests and peatlands within the UK. Land plays a huge role in any decarbonisation scenario for both supplying biomass and absorbing carbon.

Food climate report card

The report card below summarises our key findings on food, and covering around 26% of our collective total consumer emissions. It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets on food, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take.

  Meat consumption Dairy consumption Food waste
Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline)* 20% reduction 20% reduction 34% reduction
Where are we in the most recent figures? c.1,045g of meat per person per week (2018-2019) c.2,713g of dairy per person per week (2018-2019) c.8 million tonnes (2018)
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 20% still to reduce 20% still to reduce 34% still to reduce
What were the figures in the previous year? Unknown c.2673g per person per week Unknown
Are we moving fast enough? Unknown Going in the wrong direction Unknown

What does government need to do?

Use public procurement. Rebalance agricultural policy. Assess future trade deals. Use public procurement. Rebalance agricultural policy. Mandate reporting for companies. Government funding for food waste prevention.
What do companies need to do? Better carbon labelling. More plant options on menus. More investment in alternatives. Better carbon labelling. More plant options on menus. More investment in alternatives. Reduce supply chain waste.
What do consumers need to do? Reduce meat consumption by 20% Reduce dairy consumption by 20% Reduce food waste
Where are consumer intentions? 39% willing 29% willing 66% making an effort

* in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

c. = circa or approximately; CCC = Climate Change Committee

Find out more about the report

A summary of the longer report and the other impacts areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the full 40 page report as a PDF. The PDf version includes the evidence that sits behind all this information.

We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.

Closing the climate gap: Ethical Consumer Week 2021

Join us from 16 - 22 October for Ethical Consumer Week 2021 which is all about closing the climate gap.

Sessions average 1-2 hours long, and you can book one or many sessions! Most are free or 'pay as you feel' tickets, and all are online.

Sessions are focused around themes include heating, clothing, finance, food, transport, technology and retail, with experienced knowledgable guest speakers.

Click here for the programme and to book tickets online

References
1. DEFRA, 2021, Data download consumption emissions 1997-2018; BEIS, 2019, Greenhouse Gas Emissions National Statistics
2. WRAP, 2021, Net zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers
3. Poore and Nemecek, 2018, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216
4. Scarborough et al. (2014). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change. 125. 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1.
5. WRAP, 2021, Net zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers  
6. WRAP, 2011, The water and carbon footprint of household food and drink waste in the UK