Today, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the sixth and final report in its landmark series on the causes and impacts of climate change and the solutions for fighting it. Together, the reports are the most comprehensive look yet at the effects of global warming and a stark warning that – while reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have been made by at least 18 countries, including the United States, over the last decade – even smaller than expected increases in global temperature can have more serious effects than previously thought. As such, the world faces a "rapidly closing window of opportunity" to take immediate action. [Read the report summary here.]
The findings in the report are another reminder about the importance of food waste reduction as a key global climate strategy. Wasting food has an astonishingly massive greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint, due to the methane produced from food decaying in landfills; the resources it takes to grow, transport, cool, and cook food; and the conversion of native ecosystems to agriculture. The United Nations estimates that if global food loss and waste were a country, it would rank third in the world for GHG emissions after the U.S. and China. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 35% of all food ends up unsold or uneaten each year, and its production, transport, storage, preparation, and ultimate disposal produce more greenhouse gas emissions than 42 coal-fired power plants.
Recently, the global community has lasered in on methane (CH4) as a way to slash emissions within a more shortened time frame. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 20-year time frame. And while methane concentrations have increased rapidly since 2007, largely driven by fossil fuels and agriculture sectors, it has a relatively short residence time in the atmosphere, breaking down after about 12 years on average. Therefore, targeting methane sources – like food waste – now will reduce atmospheric GHG concentrations with effects that will be felt in just a decade or two, which is critical for limiting warming by 2050.
The report also specifically highlights the challenges that climate change is bringing to bear on food production, especially as the global population continues to grow. Again, food waste reduction emerges as a critical solution, as studies have shown that a 50% reduction in wasted food can decrease the amount of food needed to feed the world’s population in 2050 by 24%. It's also a great example of how food waste reduction serves as both a strategy for mitigation and adaptation, as agricultural productivity is already decreasing due to the impacts of climate change.
In the U.S. alone, cutting food waste by half in the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons each year – the same as taking 16 million gas-powered cars off the road. It would also save four trillion gallons of water and recover the equivalent of four billion meals for those in need. Over ten years, it would create 51,000 jobs. And importantly, reducing food waste also leads to several key co-benefits that get at critical issues of climate justice, climate adaptation, and biodiversity loss.
Solutions to food waste already exist. They just need the right combination of motivation, stakeholder alignment, and financing to be implemented. The IPCC report series is yet another motivator to take action. It's up to all of us to do it.
How can you help?
- ReFED’s “Climate and Resources” key topic page provides an overview of food waste as a climate change mitigation strategy, along with recommendations for taking action.
- ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste outlines seven key action areas for the food system community to take to cut waste.
- Our stakeholder recommendations pages detail the things that each food system sector, plus capital providers and policymakers, can do to drive change.
- The ReFED Insights Engine is an online knowledge hub detailing the causes and impacts of food waste, a cost-benefit analysis of more than 40 solutions to fight it, a directory of solution providers ready to partner on a food waste initiative, and a look at policies at the federal and state levels.
- The Capital Tracker – one of the tools in the Insights Engine – lets you explore food waste financing, from industry-wide trends down to deal-level details, as you develop your food waste funding strategy.