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Transforming global food systems would produce a large reduction in GHG emissions

Heads of State, ministers, and negotiators are now meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the largest annual gathering on climate action. The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 27) discusses issues critical to tackling the climate emergency, from urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change, to delivering on the commitments to finance climate action in developing countries.

The recently released United Nations Emissions Gap Report shows a very disappointing picture. Global GHG emissions continued to increase up to 2019. The emissions in 2020 declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but rebounded in 2021, setting a new record at the level of 52.8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2eq). Emissions under current policies are projected to continue to increase and are forecast to reach 58 GtCO2eq in 2030. Without additional actions, current policies will lead to global warming of 2.8 C over this century. A 2.8 degree increase is unbearable for human life. Thus, in 2015 countries committed to making efforts to limit global warming to below 2.0 C and preferably 1.5 C, the so-called Paris Agreement.

Despite all countries at the COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, strengthening their intended Nationally Determined Contributions to tackle emissions and mitigate climate change, progress is hugely insufficient, with the emissions reduction of only 0.5 GtCO2eq, less than 1 percent of the projected global emissions in 2030. It is far from the goal and the emissions gap remains high and the world is not on track to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. Urgent, broad-based, economy-wide transformations are required to drastically cut GHG emissions to avoid the climate catastrophe.

Food systems are major contributors not only to climate change, but also to land-use change and biodiversity loss, the depletion of freshwater resources and the pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Adopting a food systems lens implies a cross-sectoral approach that explicitly connects supply and demand sides, and all actors in the food supply chain. It facilitates identifying synergies and trade-offs across interconnected environmental, health and economic dimensions.

Globally, food system emissions account for one-third of the total GHG emissions or 18 GtCO2eq per year. The largest source is from agricultural production (39 percent), including the intermediate inputs such as fertilizers, followed by changes in land use (32 percent), and supply chain activities (29 percent), including retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging. Food system emissions will continue to increase, especially from the food supply chain. The emissions could almost double if nothing is done, and are projected to increase by up to 60 to 90 percent between 2010 and 2050.

Food system emissions could prevent achieving the well below 2 C, preferably 1.5 C goal by the end of the century, even if fossil fuel emissions were quickly reduced. The global food system must be transformed rapidly to produce a large emissions reduction and narrow the emissions gap. A range of transformation domains have been identified to cut down the emissions from food systems. The potential to reduce GHG emissions is up to 24.7 GtCO2eq/year through the transformations of the demand-side, protecting natural ecosystems, improving food production and decarbonizing the food value chain. The demand-side changes include dietary changes toward sustainable and nutritionally balanced diets, and reductions in food loss and waste. The protection of natural ecosystems includes reductions in deforestation for agriculture and degradation of agricultural land, and improvements in food production which includes changes in the composition of animal feeds, better rice management, better manure management, and improvements in crop nutrient management, and decarbonizing the food supply chain.

China has made an important commitment to realize its carbon peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Food systems can make a significant contribution to these targets. GHG emissions from Chinese food systems are as high as 1.09 billion tons CO2eq, which accounted for about 10 percent of the country's emissions in 2018.

Ensuring food security must be the national top priority, but measures such as improving agricultural production technologies, reducing food loss and waste, and changes to dietary patterns are also critical for reducing GHG emissions. Improvements in agricultural production technologies are the most effective stand-alone measures. Many technical measures, such as the improvement of chemical fertilizer use efficiency, the feed conversion rate, and the utilization of livestock manure as a resource have great potential to reduce GHG emissions. According to the 2021 China and Global Food Policy Report, GHG emissions reduction from agricultural activities by 2060 will be 7 to 16 percent and 9 to 23 percent under the scenario of crop technology and the scenario of livestock technology, respectively. The reduction of food loss and waste is also conducive to reducing GHG emissions, with a decrease of 4 to 7 percent in 2060. Dietary changes are the most economically effective abatement options to reduce GHG emissions by individuals and households which can cut GHG emissions by 16 to 24 percent in 2060.GHG emissions from food systems energy consumption can be significantly reduced through comprehensive emissions reduction measures, such as the improvement of energy efficiency and the optimization of the energy consumption structure. Combining all the above measures could cut food systems GHG emissions by 29 to 55 percent in 2060.

Actors from all segments of society need to take action to drive transformation and overcome barriers. The government could facilitate this transition by reforming subsidy and tax schemes. The private sector can reduce food loss and waste, use renewable energy, develop new types of food, and reduce carbon emissions. Individual citizens can change their lifestyles to make food choices for environmental sustainability and emissions reduction.

Fan Shenggen is the dean of the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy and chair professor at China Agricultural University. Zhang Yumei is a professor of the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy at China Agricultural University. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn