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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from activities connected to growing and consuming food have been significantly underestimated, and may be twice as large as previously thought, new research finds.

Why it matters: Agriculture is already known to be one of the largest contributors to human-caused global warming. If the sector's emissions are larger than thought, it could mean the world will see more warming than anticipated.

Driving the news: Through a series of research reports and commentary published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on Tuesday, scientists mapped out which parts of the food system are the most emissions intensive, which provides a blueprint for prioritizing emissions reduction efforts.

  • The analysis of global food system emissions finds that activities connected to food production and consumption -- everything from chopping down forests to clear land for cattle to transporting food from a farm to the grocery store, amounted to the equivalent of 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018.
  • This was one-third of the human-produced total that year, with the majority coming from the burning of fossil fuels for energy. It was also an increase of about 8% compared to 1990.
  • The analysis, which includes country-specific emissions inventories, was produced by scientists at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, NASA, New York University, and Columbia University.

The findings: The study looks at all emissions linked to the life cycle of food, from growing it to putting it on your plate. It therefore considers emissions from food-adjacent activities.

  • Researchers found that the largest source of food system-related emissions between 1990-2018 was converting natural ecosystems to agricultural croplands or pastures, at about 3 billion metric tons per year.
  • During the 1990 to 2018 study period, land use change emissions decreased while pre- and post-production emissions, which includes making fertilizers, transporting food, disposing of waste, as well as refrigeration, increased.
  • Per capita emissions from food systems emissions decreased during the study period, but was nearly twice as high in developed countries as they were in the developing world.
  • In total, global emissions of greenhouse gases that are connected to the food sector may comprise between 20 to 40% of global emissions, the study found.

Of note: The emissions categories that countries use to report their data to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tends to significantly underestimate the contribution of food sector emissions by stove piping information and obscuring the broader impacts of the food sector, the researchers note.

  • The next IPCC report, which will start rolling out in August, may suffer from the same problem.

The bottom line: While the recent attention focused on the consumption of meat has made it seem like supply-side interventions are all that is needed, the reality is more complicated.

  • There are a variety of other emissions interventions that scientists say should be used to help limit the pace and severity of global warming, including, for example, improving the disposal of farm wastes and making food supply chains more efficient.

Go deeper

1 in 5 Latino households had to skip meals in 2020, report finds

A volunteer at a food bank in Santa Barbara County, Calif., fills up a car with groceries in April. Photo: Daniel Dreifuss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One in five Latino households with children in the U.S. had to skip meals during 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State of play: Latino and Black households were more likely not to have enough to eat during 2020 than they were in 2019, per USDA’s annual Household Food Security report.

Survey reveals public doubts about climate action before UN summit

Expand chart
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

New polling indicates pervasive doubts among people in 17 advanced economies about whether China and the U.S. — the world’s two largest carbon emitters — will take meaningful steps to fight climate change.

Why it matters: The Pew Research Center survey released ahead of a critical United Nations climate summit in just over six weeks reveals public skepticism over whether multilateral negotiations will succeed in confronting the problem.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 15, 2021 - Energy & Environment

A wrinkle in Europe's climate policy debate

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Surging European natural gas and power prices are spilling into the debate over European Unions' plans to implement a suite of aggressive climate policies.

Driving the news: "Had we had the Green Deal five years earlier, we would not be in this position because then we would have less dependence on fossil fuels and on natural gas," Frans Timmermans, a top European Commission official on climate, told a European Parliament meeting Tuesday.