So you’ve decided it’s time to see what sort of environmental changes your company can make, and you’ve chosen us as consulting partners in this journey, congratulations! But where to start? And what should you do to avoid wasting your time or money?
Do you want to perform a company-wide assessment or focus on a key product that you think may have some opportunities for improvement? While we can help you perform a corporate greenhouse gas inventory analysis, let’s assume for now you have decided on the latter, which means doing a life-cycle assessment (LCA) to calculate the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts from the production, delivery, use and disposal of a product or product category. While FoodCarbonScopeis an option for a primarily agricultural product, it’s likely that CarbonScope will be the tool of choice.
The first phase of any LCA is to define the goal and scope. We would recommend a quick consultation at this point, since this prep work will ensure you are collecting the right data. During this phase we set the system boundary and the functional unit, and if you are not yet certain of these, here are some things to consider. While our tools can model your product’s journey from cradle-to-grave, if your product is a single-use product, like a snack, or you have very little control or insight into its downstream distribution, cradle-to-gate may be sufficient. Packaging often has large impacts. We recommend making use of our system diagram template to visualize your product and its associated supply chain.
The next phase is the inventory analysis, which includes collecting all the information on your product: the bill-of-materials and associated sourcing and delivery information, the energy purchased, waste management, and potentially some agricultural specific parameters for farmed ingredients. If you outsource this phase of the analysis to consultants, it can quickly rack up billable hours, as the consultants have to learn about your product, get connected with your operations department or your vendors, and compile this information. (And you still had to take the time and effort to make all these connections happen).
We recommend using our spreadsheet template to collect as much of the information yourself as possible. Building a model is an iterative process: you may not have detailed information on all the ingredients, parts or components, and so we advise using placeholder data in the interim before you delve deep into researching tertiary ingredients. The template includes places where you can list assumptions and indicate the degree of confidence in your data. While we are always available to consult with, you are undoubtedly the experts in how your product is sourced, manufactured, and delivered.
Phase three is the impact assessment. While some companies may purchase a subscription to CarbonScope and perform this next step themselves, we would generate results for the three impacts we track: embodied carbon (in Kg CO2e), embodied energy (in MJ), and embodied water (in liters). Through tabular and graphical data we can quickly show you where your hot spots are, and by doing some sensitivity analysis, determine where the model may need to be fine tuned and more data collection is called for.
If, however, the results seem sufficiently robust, the final step would be to interpret the results and make recommendations for change. We would generate comparisons if any alternate scenarios were defined. We typically write up a short Word document presenting key results and recommendations, but we will not deluge you in or bill you for pages of boilerplate. You will also receive a detailed Excel spreadsheet reporting all the impacts by stage, processes, and scope, so that you can slice and dice the data as desired.
At this point, it’s likely that one of your employees who has worked with us has learned a lot about our tools and methodological approach. Should you decide to do some further analysis on alternative sourcing or production methods or perhaps consider another product for analysis, we can of course help you with more of our consulting but you also have the option of buying a subscription to CarbonScope and relying on your in-house expertise.
Five actions that can turn your company into a climate leader
By Kumar Venkat and Susan Cholette
Let’s say you are a business executive or a business owner. You have heard that 2030 is pretty much the drop-dead year for drastically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to hold the warming to 1.5°C and avoid the worst of climate change. You are data-driven in everything you do, especially in how you run your business. You are no stranger to financial models and business projections. You see that climate models are predicting the unfolding climate crisis just as well as models do in other fields.
You would have liked governments around the world to lead on a problem that will touch all of humanity. But government action is lagging, and you might even call it counterproductive in countries like the US. Your instinct as a business person is to take the lead yourself. You know that your customers, employees, and shareholders will not only appreciate this but might pay you back in ways that you cannot fathom today. But what can you do as one company? How can you be a climate leader?
We are here to tell you that you can make substantial cuts in your company’s emissions without spending a ton of money. You might even save money and improve your bottom line with a disciplined approach to cutting emissions. If you show the world that you can do it while growing your business, you will inspire other companies to follow suit.
It is all about building critical mass and getting to a tipping point where a majority of businesses commit to slashing emissions by half before the end of this decade. Rapid social change is happening today right in front of our eyes, and the current lack of urgency around climate can change quickly.
So if you are with us so far, how do you start making climate a priority for your business? We suggest beginning with a full baseline inventory of all your direct and indirect emissions. Before you can reduce your emissions, you need to know where you stand. Do this accounting in-house or using consultants, with spreadsheets or more sophisticated tools. Just make sure that you include all of your emission sources and update the inventory at least annually so you can keep track of what you are reducing each year and what remains.
If you are like most businesses, your underlying production processes are not going to be easy to change in the short term (meaning in the next few years) for both cost and technical reasons. It would be more fruitful to focus for now on things you can change more easily: energy and material purchases, transportation and waste reduction. Here are five climate actions that can produce rapid results and set your business up to be a climate leader.
1. Switch to green electricity
Depending on the nature of your business, emissions from electricity could be one of the largest items in your emissions inventory. You don’t have to install onsite solar panels to clean up your electricity emissions. There are multiple options to purchase renewable electricity, but you’ll have to understand how the market works.
If your state has a regulated electricity market, then the first thing you should look into is the availability of a green pricing where you pay a small premium to the utility in exchange for electricity generated from renewable sources. In states with deregulated markets, you’ll find more options to purchase renewable energy such as retail choice (end users purchase green electricity directly from competitive retail suppliers) and utility green tariffs (large customers purchase bundled renewable electricity through their utility).
Regardless of where your company is located, you also have the option of purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs) without changing your actual electricity supply. RECs are just the environmental attributes of clean power separated from the actual power itself and sold separately by some power producers. By purchasing RECs to cover the quantity of electricity you are using, you would be helping to increase the amount of clean power entering the nation’s electricity supply.
2. Cut transport emissions
The next thing to address is direct transport emissions within your organization. Do you have company-owned cars or trucks that can be upgraded to higher-efficiency vehicles? Conventional vehicles are not the only options. It already makes economic sense in some cases to switch passenger cars to plug-in hybrids or all electric, and electric trucks are on the horizon. In conjunction with renewable electricity, this has the potential to take a big bite out of your direct transport emissions.
Third-party freight transport can be a significant indirect emissions source if your business depends heavily on raw materials transported to your factories or if your finished products are distributed over long distances. The largest reduction in freight transport emissions often comes from replacing any air transport with ground or ocean transport where possible.
While we are on the subject of transport, the last few months have shown that most companies have been sitting on a potentially large emissions cutting opportunity: employee travel and commuting. Both employers and employees are beginning to see the value of remote work, albeit forced by the pandemic.
As we emerge from the pandemic, you can aggressively curtail emissions from employee commuting by adopting a work-from-home culture for as many employees as possible, as often as possible. In addition, you can incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles for those who must drive to work (including providing charging stations) as well as encourage the use of carpooling and public transport. You can also minimize employee business travel, especially flights, and replace them with video meetings. You’ll save both money and emissions, and you might just end up with happier employees.
3. Use lower-emissions materials
Consider the materials that you are purchasing from your suppliers. If you have visibility into your suppliers’ internal processes, be sure to account for any emission reductions they might have already achieved when you inventory the emissions from your purchased materials. If you are a big enough company, ask your suppliers to provide standards-based carbon footprint reports and choose suppliers/materials with lower footprints.
If you are using common materials like paper, metal, glass or plastics, opt for recycled materials of similar quality if they are available. You will save emissions although actual savings will vary depending on the material. You are unlikely to pay a premium for recycled materials because virgin materials dominate the market and generally determine the market prices.
If you are in the food industry and purchase agricultural products, look to buy from farmers who are using regenerative agriculture. This means they are utilizing techniques like conservation tillage, cover crops and crop rotation to build up and sequester carbon in the soil. Support especially the farms that are transitioning from conventional to regenerative methods. Anything you buy from them will likely have a lower carbon footprint than comparable products grown using conventional methods.
4. Reduce waste
As a final step, reduce waste overall, and replace landfilling with reuse and recycling wherever possible. This is not so much about reducing landfill emissions, but really about getting value out of your waste stream and avoiding unnecessary extraction, processing and manufacture of virgin materials. If you are in the food industry, you already know that we waste about a third of the food that is produced. You can save emissions and money by cutting food waste in your processing plant, distribution center, restaurant or retail store.
5. Purchase high-quality carbon offsets
If you have done most of what you can from the above list, you have done the heavy lifting. But the chances are that you still have a large amount of emissions remaining in your emissions inventory. Most of that is probably indirect emissions from outside of your organization, both upstream and downstream from where you are sitting. If you have not cut your total (direct and indirect) emissions by at least half, or if you want to go even beyond that, this is the point where you will need to look into carbon offsets as a last resort to neutralize those unavoidable emissions. There are well-publicized issues around the quality and reliability of carbon offsets, so you’ll need to tread with caution. When you are ready to purchase offsets, make sure that they are from projects registered with and verified by a well-regarded governmental or NGO program.
Kumar Venkat is president of CleanMetrics 2.0. Susan Cholette is vice president of consulting services at CleanMetrics 2.0 and a professor of decision sciences at San Francisco State University.
If we are going to bend the emissions curve, then a majority of businesses need to get involved and emissions accounting must become as commonplace as financial accounting.
By Kumar Venkat and Susan Cholette
Imagine a world where many businesses — large and small — quantify their greenhouse gas emissions annually and develop plans for cutting emissions. Imagine also that emissions accounting and planning are no more complicated or expensive than financial accounting and planning.
This imaginary world is not just nice to have, but will be essential if we are going to have any chance of holding the warming to 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees. The window for 1.5 degrees pretty much closes in 2030. By that year we will need to have cut emissions 45% from 2010 levels to have a shot at 1.5 degrees, or 20% for a more devastating 2 degree temperature rise.
To achieve emission reductions of these magnitudes, we will need to turn the first half of this coming decade into a transition period where we begin bending the emissions curve even as we wait for coherent national and international climate strategies. Businesses can switch to clean energy, improve energy efficiency, move to materials with lower life-cycle emissions, adopt or even invest in carbon capture technologies, and as a last resort find high-quality carbon offsets to neutralize the remaining emissions in their operations.
If these voluntary actions actually take place at a sufficient scale in the next several years, they will have an outsized impact on our future temperature trajectory. But we can’t cut emissions without knowing where we stand. Before businesses can take action, they will need to quantify their emissions at least annually similar to an annual financial review. Ideally, a review like this will show not just a year-to-year trend but also real opportunities for emissions reduction. There have been two long-standing obstacles to doing this on a large scale across the economy.
The first and biggest obstacle is cost. A typical corporate greenhouse gas inventory or a product carbon footprint can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. For companies with many different products and complex operations, the cost can quickly become prohibitive. Not many companies have the budget to undertake a one-time footprinting exercise, let alone do it on an annual basis. Given the millions of businesses and the tens of millions of products in the US alone, there isn’t enough money in the world to footprint everything at these price points.
The second obstacle is time. We only have this coming decade to turn the emissions trajectory around and begin an era of annually decreasing emissions. Conventional carbon footprinting exercises can take anywhere from a few weeks to many months. We just don’t have the time (or the army of consultants) to footprint everything at this pace.
It is not enough for just the largest or the most socially responsible companies to quantify their emissions. If we are going to bend the emissions curve, then a majority of businesses need to get involved, and emissions accounting must become as commonplace as financial accounting. This can only be achieved with highly streamlined and standardized life-cycle assessments and greenhouse gas inventories that can be performed on a mass scale at a small fraction of the cost and time they have required in the past.
We have a few suggestions on how to get there. The first and most important step is automation. We should leverage modern cloud computing and databases to compute, store and report results rapidly. Spreadsheet-based analysis should become a thing of the past.
Once we have an automated framework for carbon modeling, we should decide on the level of accuracy needed. For the vast majority of business applications, secondary life-cycle inventory data for upstream purchases and downstream activities should provide more than enough accuracy for identifying the significant emission sources and considering options to reduce those emissions. Moreover, this can be supplemented with economic input-output data in order to limit any inaccuracy that may occur due to cutoffs. This type of simplification is common in many engineering disciplines and is essential for high-volume carbon modeling.
Accounting standards already exist for corporate and product carbon footprints, but allow a fair amount of leeway in how specific scenarios are modeled. In the interests of saving time and effort, we should adopt a standardized methodology for modeling common issues that many businesses will encounter (such as recycling and waste disposal) as well as less common ones (such as time-dependent storage and release of carbon in soils, vegetation, and built structures).
With automation, simplification, and standardization, we have a real opportunity to make emissions accounting accessible to businesses of all sizes. If done right, this could be step one in the fight to hold the line at 1.5 degrees.
Kumar Venkat is president of CleanMetrics 2.0. Susan Cholette is vice president of consulting services at CleanMetrics 2.0 and a professor of decision sciences at San Francisco State University.
Working from home could be a starting point for tackling the climate crisis
Kumar Venkat and Susan Cholette
As most of us stay hunkered down at home, we can already see a clearing of the air. There are reports of dramatically lower air pollution and smog around the world. Los Angeles saw a 29% drop in air pollution in March, and the nitrogen dioxide in the air from Boston to Washington is at the lowest level since 2005. The International Energy Agency is projecting an 8% drop in global carbon dioxide emissions this year.
This situation is unlikely to last unless we act. The 2008 financial crisis showed that the rebound in emissions as the economy recovers can far exceed the original decline. Moreover, economic recovery funds could end up reinforcing the old economy rather than promoting green technologies. Against these headwinds, the key to emerging from this pandemic with a climate plan may well be the changes in behavior and awareness that are taking root.
Perhaps the biggest change we have seen during this pandemic is how business is conducted. Anyone dealing with data or information, writing code or designing products, processing loans or advising clients, is now working remotely from home. We have had the technology to support telework for about 20 years now, but even tech companies have been slow to adopt a culture of remote work. Yahoo’s CEO famously sent out a no-work-from-home memo to employees in 2013, and other large corporations reduced or eliminated telecommuting in the past decade.
All this changed in March as many companies switched to remote work, led by tech companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. Some companies have already told their employees that they can work from home till end of the year. While we have known that employees are more efficient and happier when they have this flexibility, there is another important benefit: remote work can be a key piece of the climate puzzle that we need to solve this decade in order to bend the emissions curve and get on a clear downward trajectory.
Greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars and air travel add up to more than 15% of net US national emissions. We could put a significant dent in passenger transport emissions if many white collar employees continue to work from home all or part of the time and if businesses replace a large part of air travel with video conferences. For example, if we can reduce the passenger miles driven by 25% and miles flown by 50%, we can cut national emissions by nearly 5%. In an era of steadily increasing emissions, any such reduction would be a big initial step toward taking charge of the climate.
A post-pandemic national project to cut transport emissions voluntarily can be a win-win proposition. Employees would enjoy the flexibility to work from home at least part of the time, while saving money spent on gasoline. Employers would benefit from productivity increases as well as cost savings from eliminating business travel and downsizing office spaces. Communities would see reduced rush-hour traffic and pollution while spending less on road maintenance.
In addition, employers would be able to take credit for all of the avoided emissions from employee commuting and travel. These are part the so-called scope 3 emissions which most companies have found difficult to reduce, so these savings could come in handy as businesses move to more rigorous and widespread carbon accounting this decade.
Individuals, fresh from sheltering at home and appreciating the value of mobility, can take this even further by being thoughtful about where and how they travel. Perhaps a future vacation to Europe could be replaced with a road trip closer to home, resulting in savings of a few tons of carbon emissions per family. We may still need to use air travel occasionally for visiting family members living in another part of the country or when our children travel to and from college in another state, but carefully considering the need to get on an airplane can make a big difference to the emissions that we cause as individuals.
We could have done all this and more without waiting for a life-changing pandemic. But as we come out of this pandemic with an altered business landscape and more awareness of our personal consumption patterns, we have a rare opportunity to make sure that the planet’s climate doesn’t become an even bigger crisis than the one we are battling now. Transport emissions are just the low-hanging fruit that we should go after as a first step.
The pandemic has upended supply chains. No doubt many of you, like us, have had to adjust your purchasing habits. Since we study how companies are now re-tooling their business models, we have considered how some practices could translate into consumer behaviors that might serve us better even in normal times.
Supply and demand shocks are showing the importance of supply-chain resiliency. Companies that depend on global sourcing have been unable to get products or parts as Chinese factories have slowed or shut down production. Anyone visiting Amazon recently may have faced similar supply shocks with estimated delivery dates running into June. On the demand side, producers that specialize in fancy farm-to-table foods for high-end restaurants or high-volume production for cafeterias have struggled as their food service clients have stopped ordering.
Diversified supply chains are typically more resilient to shocks than those that rely on producers in a single geographical region or consumers in niche sectors. Many firms are considering using more suppliers, especially those closer to home. As consumers, we can mimic this by diversifying our own purchases. As much of the food we purchase in supermarkets is produced in other parts of the country or overseas, we should add more local sources. One possibility is to subscribe to a CSA, which will deliver fresh produce from local farmers to your home on a weekly basis. Other options include for-profit social enterprises like Imperfect Foods, which sells misshapen or excess produce and helps reduce food waste in the supply chain.
Consumers can take the practice of local sourcing even further up the supply chain by figuring out what nearby food producers may have available to sell. America imports about two-thirds of its seafood, but if you live near a body of water, you might be able to buy some locally caught fish. For instance, San Franciscans can now visit Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up deliveries from Water2Table, which normally wholesales just to restaurants but because of the large number of restaurant closures now sells directly to consumers.
Buying locally has other advantages. When this pandemic recedes, we will want the producers, restaurants, and stores in our communities to remain in business. If your budget allows, consider treating yourself to takeout from the restaurants that are still open.
Consumers should rethink how to manage their personal stock of food and other supplies. Many businesses have traditionally used just-in-time deliveries from manufacturers and wholesalers to keep their inventory costs low, and consumers have similarly relied on short delivery times or on supermarkets being fully stocked and open round-the-clock for spontaneous shopping. This, of course, does not work during a pandemic as demand spikes and consumers tend to purchase more in fewer shopping trips. But stockpiling months of supplies in our homes is not the solution, from either a moral or a practical standpoint, because it creates shortages for other shoppers and exceeds limited refrigerator and freezer space for perishables.
Many stores are now limiting purchases of scarce items such as toilet paper. As consumers, we can help ourselves and other shoppers by becoming smarter inventory managers and smoothing out these demand spikes. We suggest stocking about 2–3 weeks’ worth of supplies and then using a weekly shopping trip to replace what was used in the previous week. Part of an effective inventory management strategy is meal planning and minimizing the food that goes to waste.
Our final suggestion may sound simplistic, but simplifyingis a powerful tool. Consumers can adopt a business practice championed in high-tech manufacturing known as planned postponement, which purposely delays end differentiation of products until market needs are better known. A practical example of this is buying basics such as dried pasta, canned sauces, and other shelf-stable foods that can be used to make a variety of different meals depending on what you are craving on any given day, rather than buying perishable premade meals. Manufacturers often make use of component commonality across products, and savvy cooks can apply the same idea by substituting readily available ingredients when a recipe calls for exotic or out-of-stock ingredients.
Eventually this crisis will abate and many of the conveniences of pre-pandemic life will once again become available, including being able to order just about any product online for speedy home delivery. But hopefully by then we will also have learned the value, both to our pocketbooks and to our communities, of keeping our personal supply chains resilient by sourcing more locally, managing our inventories, and simplifying what we can.
I was one of many consultants and analysts trying to help companies cut their carbon emissions a decade ago. In the end, we did not manage to put a dent in the annual greenhouse gas inventories of nations. The record high global emissions this year and the rising US emissions are not surprises. We could have predicted this emissions trajectory years ago.
We would have had to put in place carbon regulations about a decade ago in order to start bending the emissions curve right about now. In the 2000s, many companies were actively looking at their operations and supply chains to find opportunities to reduce emissions. This was in part driven by pressure from consumers and activists, but corporations also anticipated that regulations were just around the corner. When I first started my consulting business, I couldn’t keep up with the demand for carbon footprinting services.
But all that changed as 2010 closed out. I can almost point to the midterm elections that year as the defining moment for American companies. Once Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, businesses realized that there would be no cap-and-trade or any other kind of carbon regulation coming soon. Companies still talked about sustainability in their annual reports, but the funding for voluntary carbon reductions dried up.
I eventually went back to work in the tech industry (where I had come from originally), hoping that the politics would change before it was too late and others with more staying power than me would walk us through the remaining critical steps. When the Paris climate agreement was negotiated in 2015, I was ecstatic. Finally, there was a faint light at the end of the tunnel. I thought of Paris as a statement of intent, a stake in the ground that we had never had before.
Then 2017 came along and the new president announced his plan to withdraw from the one and only global climate agreement. US emissions, after dropping in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, increased last year at the highest rate since 2010 as the economy picked up steam — showing clearly that our economy runs on fossil fuels and we can’t hope to cut emissions without addressing this basic fact.
Perhaps this is exactly the kind of dire emergency that we needed all along to focus our minds. But the fact remains that we have no history of ever solving a crisis of this magnitude.
Nothing even comes remotely close. Not the plague in the 14th century. Not the world wars, concentration camps or terrorist attacks. Not any of the floods, hurricanes or fires. We have no useful human experience that we can draw upon, no track record that we can point to. We have yet to mobilize worldwide action after a quarter century of trying.
There are small indications that the tide may be turning. Over 2200 businesses have broken ranks with the US government to support the Paris accord. Polls show signs of increasing urgency around climate change. Youth leaders are calling for true climate action with a passion that is inspiring the rest of us. Not a week goes by without a major climate story in the news, and it is no longer an academic subject. I’ve had more casual conversations about climate change in the last few months than in the previous 20 years.
As I prepare to return to the climate battlefield, I am not confident that we’ll win this one. But I would like to believe that, this time around, an entire army of us will fight like we’ve never fought before.
If we assume that just half the US households recycle regularly and spend 10 minutes a week rinsing and setting aside the recyclables, we are looking at over half a billion person-hours of time invested annually. Add to this governmental involvement and subsidies, and recycling may just be the one big thing we do for the environment as a country.
But do we really know what happens once the bins are emptied into the recycling trucks?
Just adding steel, aluminum and other metals to the mix would extract 89 percent of the emissions savings from less than 60 percent of the recyclables by weight.
Plastics, which are ubiquitous in our society but notoriously difficult to recycle, account for fewer than two percent of the emissions savings from recycling. Other materials such as glass and organic waste offer even less of an environmental return relative to their weight when recycled or composted.
The economics are not friendly to recycling, so closing the materials loop is difficult at best. The supply of virgin materials typically far exceeds the supply of recycled materials and global demand is usually large enough to consume all available production. Prices are then determined by virgin materials and there is generally no cost advantage to using recycled materials in new production since environmental benefits are not reflected in prices.
Plus, the scale economies in virgin production cannot be easily replicated in the more spatially diverse and labor-intensive recycling processes. The market has adjusted to this by exporting a significant part of the paper and plastic waste to countries with lower labor costs, but that may be changing as China begins to tighten the import of waste.
So what we are left with is a rather unsatisfactory system that survives probably because the idea of recycling our waste into new products is a comforting one in a throw-away society.
If we could design a more effective system, we would want to get the price signals right. A meaningful price on carbon could make recycled materials more competitive due to the emissions savings and could trigger a virtuous business cycle that increases the volume of recyclables collected and profitably processed.
In the absence of carbon pricing or a tax on virgin materials, it would make more sense to simply maximize the benefits of recycling while reducing cost and effort by limiting it to as few materials as possible. The materials that deliver most of the environmental benefits are paper and metals. These are also the easiest to sort and process into new products.
Since paper waste is largely generated in urban areas, we could locate highly automated recycling plants close to where the waste is generated. Instead of exporting the waste, we could be processing the recyclables in the US at a competitive cost.
Not recycling plastic might seem like a radical step, but recycling has never been the answer to the large amounts of plastics we use and discard each year. Taking recycling out of the equation would have the added benefit of making our plastic pollution more explicit to both consumers and producers.
While technologies like biodegradable plastics may be viable in the future, reducing and reusing plastics remain the best options today. When plastic inevitably turns into waste, we should send 100 percent of it to landfill and stop subsidizing it under the guise of curbside recycling.
It is time to take in the lessons of our long-running recycling experiment, and design a more efficient and targeted system. We also need to confront the enormous amounts of waste that we generate and acknowledge that recycling as we know it today is not the antidote to all the raw materials and energy expended on single-use products in our society.
As you sit down to eat a holiday dinner with family or friends this year, the Earth’s climate may be the farthest thing from your mind. But if you are looking for a good New Year’s resolution in a few weeks, you can’t go wrong with climate-friendly eating. The links between food and climate are significant but fairly simple to understand. It is not difficult to eat well without destroying the climate.
Perhaps the biggest climate decision around food that most of us will make is the choice of proteins. Red meats like beef and lamb have a dramatically higher carbon footprint than plant-based options such as beans or tofu. For an equal supply of protein, beef produces 20–25 times as much greenhouse gas emissions on average as beans, and about 12 times as much as tofu. Chicken and turkey, on the other hand, are much more benign, producing only 3–6 times the emissions of plant-based proteins.
The average American consumes 275 pounds of red meats and poultry per year, which generates about a metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions during production. To put this in perspective, this is six percent of annual US per-capita emissions. Just replacing beef with chicken would cut these emissions in half and is one of the easier solutions if you are not ready to go vegetarian or vegan. For those willing to try meat substitutes, plant-based burger patties generate only a tenth of the emissions of ground beef.
When greenhouse gas emissions of food products are calculated over the full product life cycles, emissions from transportation are generally less than 10 percent of total emissions and therefore not very significant. Moreover, local food production often suffers from inefficient distribution — and higher emissions per pound of food — compared to the highly streamlined logistics of long-distance goods transport.
So you don’t have to buy local to be climate-friendly as long as you are not getting fresh foods like salmon that are air-freighted.
Life-cycle assessments of organic production point to a number of common inefficiencies such as lower yields and higher on-farm energy use. Increased soil carbon sequestration remains the one clear advantage in the first few decades after converting conventional croplands to organic production. But the lower yields would have to be made up through increased food production and land-use changes elsewhere.
Food processing and packaging do add to a product’s life-cycle emissions. Since plant-based foods start out with low emissions, they see a larger relative impact than animal foods. Processing is likely to be more energy-efficient and less wasteful than home cooking but freezing can more than double the emissions of plant-based foods. Packaging typically contributes less than ten percent of total product emissions in most cases, but it could double the emissions of processed fruits or vegetables that are canned or bottled.
Neither of these impacts is large enough for consumers to avoid processed and packaged foods entirely on the basis of climate.
Finally, the food that we don’t eat has a climate impact from the wasted production, processing, transport and disposal. Nearly 30 percent of the food produced in the US is wasted each year, and over 60 percent of that is consumer waste. This works out to about 240 pounds of avoidable waste per person and contributes 1–2 percent to per-capita emissions. But not all food waste is equal.
Wasted animal foods have 3.5 times the climate impact of plant-based foods on average, so it helps to start by focusing the waste reduction on high-emission foods.
Rather than taking on a laundry list of small actions around food and climate, it might be easier — and more satisfying — to commit to a couple of big things in the new year that can really move the needle. After years of studying the climate impacts of foods, I can’t think of anything more impactful than our choice of proteins, followed by waste reduction. Everything else that we can do for food sustainability is icing on the cake.
My local grocery store recently decided that it would no longer offer single-use carryout plastic bags, presumably to get a head start on Oregon’s upcoming ban on such bags. I, for one, had always saved and reused these bags, usually as garbage can liners, so I got at least two uses out of them. I now buy garbage bags that are made of heavier plastic and hence create more carbon emissions than the flimsy grocery bags.
Data from California shows in fact that purchase of plastic trash bags spikes dramatically when disposable plastic bags are banned. That is not the only unintended consequence. Some customers end up taking home paper bags that have a demonstrably higher carbon footprint than plastic bags of the same carrying capacity.
Consider the best-case scenario: Even if every shopper in this country replaced all plastic grocery bags with reusable bags and purchased no additional trash bags, the emissions savings would be minuscule. Single-use plastic bags already have the smallest carbon footprint to produce as many studies have shown. All things considered, the choice of bags would make essentially no difference in the battle against climate change.
But isn’t tackling the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans one of the aims of this ban? Yes, but less than 1 percent of the world’s plastic waste that is litter or improperly disposed of originates in the United States. We are just not a big enough plastics polluter to help solve this problem.
A year after the ban went into effect in California, the number of plastic bags in the state’s beach litter dropped by more than half, but the actual amount of bag waste saved was less than 750 pounds. We can expect to save significantly less than that in Oregon, which has about one-tenth of California’s population.
Waste reduction in and of itself is a good thing, but we should just be aware that this particular ban might not yield a return proportional to the combined efforts of Oregonians to comply with it. It is a small environmental victory to savor after the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in the summer, but by no means a replacement for meaningful action.
The real existential threat to Oregon and the nation is climate change. The United States is the second largest carbon polluter in the world, so it is logical for states to take the lead on climate given a lack of response at the federal level.Share your opinionSubmit your essay of 500-700 words on a highly topical issue or a theme of particular relevance to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and the Portland area to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your email and phone number for verification.
The Oregon climate bill failed largely because of a lack of public appetite for higher fossil fuel prices. Even though the bill would have provided refunds to lower-income Oregonians, there was no way to fully mitigate the disproportionate share of the burden placed on individuals and businesses in rural areas. We need to bring a majority of Oregonians on board by addressing real concerns like these.
Some ideas to consider: exempt the trucking industry for some number of years by offsetting their fuel cost increases through refunds (after all, we all benefit from the products the trucks deliver), help rural Oregonians purchase more efficient vehicles, and perhaps provide other refunds or tax credits in the short term to close the urban-rural divide on this issue.
Climate legislation is going to be much more difficult than banning plastic bags, but climate is the real crisis crying out for a solution.
It can be confusing for climate-conscious consumers to sort through all of the carbon-reduction options out there in search of the ones that can truly make a difference. Even with a background in carbon footprint analysis, I still find it tricky to separate the good ideas from the bad.
I have learned to follow a simple rule of thumb that helps me cut through all the climate-related noise: Don’t sweat the small things when it comes to climate change. Focus your energies and investments on a few big actions that you can sustain over the long term.
But common misconceptions about what can move the climate-change needle make it harder for consumers to make the right choice.
In 2014, California became the first state to pass legislation to ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores. The question of whether paper or plastic is better for the environment has become largely irrelevant as a growing list of states and cities have banned all single-use plastic carryout bags. Yet this high-profile movement does little to reduce the nation’s total carbon emissions.
Even if every shopper in the U.S. switched from plastic to reusable bags, we would reduce our annual national emissions by only 0.02%.
Making a point of purchasing locally produced food is another common action that provides little climate benefit. Much concern has been expressed over the years about “food miles” — the distance that food travels from farms to consumers — and the associated emissions from transportation.
Even when emissions from production are low — as they are with many fruits and vegetables — transportation alters their carbon footprint in a counterintuitive way.
Long-distance transportation via semi-trailers is generally more efficient than local transportation in smaller vehicles. Farm-to-retail transportation emissions of local farmers market produce can end up being more than double that of similar supermarket produce.
In addition, emissions from packaging materials are rarely large enough to justify making purchasing decisions based on how a product is packaged. Packaging typically accounts for less than 10% of the total emissions for most food products, and significantly less than that for durable goods.
Sometimes it helps to put the action you want to take in perspective. The American Cleaning Institute, an organization that represents the cleaning products industry, recently estimated that a household could cut its emissions by 864 pounds of carbon per year by washing four out of five loads in cold water. That number sounded impressive until I calculated that it works out to about one-half of 1% of the annual carbon footprint for a family of four.
Even if every family in America adopted the cold-water washing method, national emissions would only be reduced by less than 1%.
Consider the widely held belief that organic farming is better for the climate. Multiple studies have shown that net emissions would be higher in the long run with organic production due to lower yields. I buy some organic produce to minimize the pesticides my family ingests, but I have no illusions about helping the climate when I do that.
But consumers are not powerless. Significant emission reductions are possible in the areas of transportation and electricity, which are responsible for more than 60% of net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Driving an electric vehicle can cut emissions by 10 to 20%. Eliminating a single coast-to-coast flight can save nearly 4% relative to per-capita emissions, but these savings only become significant when enough people avoid flying and fewer planes are in the air.