The Food System’s Carbon Footprint Has Been Vastly Underestimated

While the analysis draws attention to the limitations to the IPCC’s categories, it’s not intended to replace this foundational system. “We’re not trying to advocate for the need to use one accounting system over another,” said Francesco Tubiello, the lead author of the paper and a senior statistician at FAO. Like Rosenzweig, he sees this analysis and the forthcoming database as a complement to the IPCC’s reporting system. “Countries that are truly interested in developing strategy that goes across their food systems can better quantify those emissions and identify hotspots, region by region, and by development status,” said Tubiello.

Putting Food System Emissions in the Right Bucket

Word choice has played a key role in the way food and agriculture emissions data has essentially been buried in other categories. For instance, emissions from the conversion of forested land, the drainage of organic soils, and peat fires are counted under the category of “Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry” (LULUCF), obscuring the major role of agriculture in destroying and degrading natural ecosystems.

“Those emissions get shoved under LULUCF, even when the largest driver is agriculture,” said Tubiello. If greenhouse gases from land use and changes were included in the “agriculture” category, the analysis found that emissions within that category would be nearly doubled, he points out.

Because forests can act as carbon sinks, they are also used to offset the emissions produced from agriculture-driven conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems in the LULUCF category. This fact can obscure the overall picture. Similarly, the agriculture sector is part of the broader category, known as Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use, consisting of LULUCF and agriculture. When lumped together, agriculture’s role can be diminished. In 2019, the IPCC released a Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and compiled those emissions for the global food system for the first time in the panel’s history, but it didn’t affect the guidelines for how emissions are reported to the UNFCCC.

“If you put agriculture in with a bucket with forestry and other land uses, then the sink from all the forested land counteracts the emissions from agriculture,” said Kevin Karl, an author on the paper and research associate at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “It just tells a very different story.”

The IPCC’s accounting system for agriculture similarly overlooks the use of fossil fuels in the food system, from hauling food across the country to manufacturing fertilizer and farm equipment. “I am a firm believer that we need to cut—at least at the same time [as other mitigation strategies], if not first and foremost—most of the CO2 from fossil fuels,” said Tubiello. “So, part of the rationale for the work that we’re doing now is characterizing the magnitude [of greenhouse gas emissions] along the supply chain.”

The new analysis also includes emissions from food waste disposal, which are currently accounted for under the IPCC’s waste sector. This includes greenhouse gases released from the decomposition of food in landfills, incineration, and wastewater treatment— often neglected areas of policy. As the accompanying paper notes, “Most countries have yet to include policies for reducing food waste as a mitigation measure in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.”

There are a few areas still overlooked in the new system. For one, the analysis does not take into account the role of varying farming practices, such as improving soil health, in reducing carbon emissions. Karl noted that there is not enough data on this, especially in developing countries. The role of international shipping, trade, and demand is not examined under the new analysis either. This overlooks, for instance, how highly industrialized countries’ demand for certain agricultural commodities can drive emissions in the global South.

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