Meat and dairy account for more than 75 per cent of the climate impact from EU diets. Photo: Flickr.com / Shane Lin CC BY-NC
European lunches leave carbon footprints overseas
Around 30 per cent of greenhouse gases from EU food consumption are emitted in other regions, mainly Latin America, Asia and Africa.
The issue of exported greenhouse gas emissions has been receiving more and more attention. Although the UNFCCC accounting system only attributes emissions to the producer country, to achieve true emission reductions it is vital that we make sure that lower emissions in one country don’t lead to more emissions somewhere else in the world.
A recent study estimates the climate footprint of EU food consumption. The footprint was found to vary considerably from 610 kg CO2 eq per capita per year in Bulgaria, to 1460 kg CO2 eq in Portugal. The EU average value is 1070 kg CO2 eq per capita per year.
To get accurate figures for the climate impact of imported food and feed, the researchers followed trade flows and attributed specific emission factors to each crop in each country. On average, around 30 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from EU diets were emitted outside Europe. Most of these emissions occurred in Latin America, but there were also significant shares in Asia and Africa. Of the EU member states, the Netherlands had the highest share at around 50 per cent, and Poland the lowest at around 20 per cent.
The largest source of emissions abroad was land-use change in Latin America, predominantly caused by expanding soy production. Soy is mainly used as feed for animals. Somewhat surprisingly, imported meat did not have a particularly high climate footprint in this study, which can be explained by the accounting method they use. In countries such as Brazil the area occupied by grazing animals is not growing. So even if cattle grazing takes place on the edge of the rainforest, it is crop production that it is assumed to be the driver behind deforestation and is assigned the related emissions. On the other hand, imported beverages and stimulants, most notably coffee, made a significant contribution, causing 13 per cent of the food-related emissions.
Although it is important to understand and track emissions caused in other countries, the study showed no strong link between the share of exported emissions and total climate impact. The factor that showed the clearest correlation with total greenhouse gas emissions, as shown in several other studies, was the total number of calories from animal products in the diet. The study found that meat and dairy account for more than 75 per cent of the impact from EU diets.
Fish and seafood were not included in the study because of lack of data on trade flows, which of course skew the results somewhat. In general, the climate footprints from fish are on a par with poultry meat, but vary considerably between species and origins.
The role of trade in the greenhouse gas footprints of EU diets, by Vilma Sandström et al. Global Food Security Volume 19, December 2018, Pages 48–55 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2018.08.007
Production- and trade-related dietary emissions of the average diets in EU countries.
Dietary emissions presented in production regions.