Food production alone is set to push Earth past 1.5°C of warming
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Environment



5 November 2020

By Ibrahim Sawal

Corn harvesting in Pskov, Russia

Hans Neleman/Getty Images

Greenhouse gas emissions from global food production will be enough to push Earth beyond an internationally agreed goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, even if we cut all other sources of emissions.

“If we don’t change what we do with food, we would miss the 1.5°C target within 30-45 years” says Michael Clark at the University of Oxford. “Assuming all other emissions sources are magically reduced.”

Clark and his colleagues used data on food consumption, production and population growth to predict how emissions might change over the coming decades. They found that if we do nothing, global food production will contribute the equivalent of 1300 gigatonnes of CO2, enough to miss the goal, set by the Paris climate agreement, of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

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The team also found that introducing various green strategies such as increasing crop yield, consuming a healthier diet and reducing food waste would give humanity a 67 per cent chance of hitting the 1.5°C target. “The most effective one seems to be transitioning to a plant-based diet” says Clark.

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That scenario assumes that non-food emissions immediately reach net zero – meaning any remaining sources of carbon are offset to zero – in 2020, which is extremely unrealistic. If instead non-food emissions gradually reach net zero by 2050, reaching the Paris target is still possible if all of the green food production strategies are in place.

We should have already taken action on food, says Clark. “The longer we wait, the harder and bigger the changes need to be to meet the targets” he says. “We need to actually back our words with actions and policies rather than just talking about things.”

He acknowledges that it will be hard to implement the strategies, but says both individuals and policy makers can do their part. “What are we willing to give up and what are we willing to lose, if we actually care about these targets?” he says.

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aba7357

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