Corn harvest

Food production alone should bring the earth to over 1.5 ° C warming

By Ibrahim Sawal

Corn harvest in Pskov, Russia

Hans Neleman / Getty Images

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

“If we didn’t change what we do with food, we would miss the 1.5 ° C target within 30 to 45 years,” says Michael Clark from Oxford University. “Provided all other emission sources are magically reduced.”

Clark and colleagues used data on food consumption, production, and population growth to predict how emissions might change in the coming decades. They found that, if we don’t do anything, global food production will contribute the equivalent of 1,300 gigatons of CO2, which is enough to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels.

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The team also found that adopting various green strategies like increasing crop yields, eating healthier diets, and reducing food waste would give humankind a 67 percent chance of meeting the 1.5 ° C goal. “The most effective seems to be the transition to a plant-based diet,” says Clark.

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This scenario assumes that 2020 non-food emissions will immediately hit net zero – meaning all remaining carbon sources will be zeroed – which is hugely unrealistic. Instead, if non-food emissions gradually hit net zero by 2050, meeting the Paris target will still be possible if all green food production strategies are in place.

We should have taken action on food by now, says Clark. “The longer we wait, the more difficult and extensive the changes have to be to achieve the goals,” he says. “We actually need to back up our words with actions and guidelines rather than just talking about things.”

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

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

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