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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 2022: An annual report on progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK.

Food accounts for 26% of our total consumer emissions. In 2022, the Climate Gap report found that overall, we seem to be moving in the right direction, but our figures suggest that the speed of change needs to increase if we are to reach our 2030 goals.

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 by 34%

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.

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.

Current situation: 2022 report findings for food

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.1,041g per person per week (2019-2020) c.2,676g per person per week (2019-2020) c.8 million tonnes (2018 - still the
latest figure available)
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? 1,045g per person per week (2018-2019) c.2,713g per person per week c.8 million tonnes
Are we moving fast enough? No No 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; 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

* in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

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

Comments on the 2022 report card

Small changes in what people consume and throw away are not an exact science. We have continued to use figures on meat and dairy from DEFRA’s Family Food Dataset, which suggest a 0.3% reduction in meat consumption and 0.1% reduction in dairy between 2018- 2019 and 2019-2020. But there are other promising signs on this - when surveyed in 2021 on what things they are doing to tackle climate change 29% of people said that they eat less meat and 16% said less dairy, and these figures had risen from 25% and 14% in 2019. [7]

The CCC is using older figures than us – it reports meat and dairy consumption figures from DEFRA’s Family Food Survey (a different source), the latest of which are from 2019. These suggest that there was a 2% reduction in meat and 3% reduction in dairy from 2018.

The latest available figures on food waste are still from 2018. Annual food waste data is identified as a data gap by the CCC. However, WRAP’s survey’s during the pandemic found that people at least said that they were throwing away less food at that point, as they had more time. [8]

Overall, we seem to be moving in the right direction, but our figures suggest that the speed of change needs to speed up if we are to reach our 2030 goals.

The government’s net zero strategy includes a committent to halve food waste by 2030, but it has not set out any ambition for a reduction in meat and dairy consumption or any policies to encourage it. [9]

Feedback on the report from our food workshop

We explained how our 2021 Climate Gap report had drawn heavily on the Eating Better Alliance's 2019 roadmap 'Better by Half' for its recommendations for government and company actions.

Alex Mackaness from the Soil Association explained how they wanted to see a wholesale transition away from industrialised agriculture with its large scale monocultures and ultra-processed foods, and towards agroecology, sustainable land use and sustainable diets.

Simon Fairlie, author, and publisher of the Land magazine agreed. He wrote in to say: " Looking at your food report card, I would support a reduction in meat consumption of at least 20 per cent, but not in dairy consumption. Dairy is a much more efficient user of the UK’s main crop, grass, than beef and lamb, and is the fertility-building part of a mixed organic farm."

We also learned how WRAP, which works mainly with companies, had recently published its own report - "Pathway 2030: Delivering a 50% reduction in the GHG footprint of UK food and drink". The three biggest elements where they thought that companies could reduce impact were in energy decarbonisation, zero tropical deforestation in the supply chain, and in leading dietary change.

Access the 2022 report

A summary and PDF of the 2022 report and the other impact areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the 2021 report as a PDF.

The reports include the evidence that sits behind all this information.

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. Our second report will be published from 18th October.

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.

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

four boxes of vegetarian and vegan food including rice, falafel and vegetables

Handy advice on climate actions you can take

We are creating series of articles highlighting actions you can take for the climate on the areas of food, heating, transport and consumer goods - see the links below:

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
7. CCC, 2022, Progress in reducing emissions – 2022 Report to Parliament – Indicators
8. WRAP, 2021, UK Household Food Waste tracking survey Winter 2021: Behaviours, attitudes, and awareness
9. HM Government, October 2021, Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener

We would like to express gratitude to the Ecology Building Society for its sponsorship of the 2022 Climate Gap Report.

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