The clear message remains clear: a significant reduction in emissions is imperative. The circular economy offers an answer to that call – with a robust set of strategies that have proven their worth reduce emissions, create jobssupport robustonly communities and offer a lot other environmental benefitsit is increasingly recognized as forward-looking.
Worldwide, our food systems contribute massively to the collapse of the climate and produce 33% of global emissions. And of all the food we produce, an amazing one 80% is consumed from the world’s activity hotspots: cities. Cities, epicenters of culture, innovation and – inevitably – consumption, play a crucial role in the global race to net zero. First comes London: a city of over 9 million people, the British capital – and one of Europe’s largest cities – is now pioneering a method that could reduce the city’s food-related consumption-related emissions by up to 31%: the Circle Carbon Scan, developed by circular economy in cooperation with London. The tool found consumption-based emissions from food in the city exceed 15.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents – on average, each Londoner is responsible for 1,730 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents emitted per year from eating food alone. Compensating for these emissions would not be easy; in fact the total amount would require 770 million trees to capture from the atmosphere. The scan also revealed that food-related emissions per person exceeded the UK average, even though Londoners consumed significantly less food. Why is that – and how can the city meet the 31% figure modeled by the Circle Carbon Scan?
The journey of food along the value chain – and how it creates embodied emissions along the way
The groceries we pluck from a grocery store shelf, or are delivered to us within minutes when we sit down in a restaurant, do not appear out of nowhere: the industry’s supply chain is complex, stretching across regions and sectors. From import and cultivation, processing and manufacturing, wholesale and retail to export, catering, household consumption, redistribution and finally waste collection and management, the lives of different food products can look very different – both in terms of their physical and carbon footprints . The Circle Carbon Scan – a tool that can be used to capture the consumption-based emissions of materials and products – highlights which steps in the supply chain generate the most emissions in the production of the 6.3 million tonnes of food that make up the world’s food every year Meeting the needs of the London food system.
The bulk of the emissions – about three-quarters – are in the food itself and are released on farms, mostly outside the city limits, according to the study: unsurprisingly less than 1% of London’s food supply is grown within the city limits. Looking at what Londoners eat provides more insight: high-emission foods like meat and dairy make up just 23% of the food consumed, but are responsible for almost half of emissions. Conversely, fruit and vegetables are eaten in almost equal proportions, but account for only 4% of household consumption emissions.
Londoners’ fruit and vegetable consumption accounts for just 4% of emissions from household food consumption. Photo of Aleksandr Podvalny at Unsplash
The solution? A circular economy for food – plant-based and zero-waste
Such emission hotspots are clear – but what can be done to make the most of this data? And how can the circular economy help? The analysis uncovered three key levers: Put simply, Londoners could switch to healthier, more sustainable diets, reduce food loss and waste, and make better use of their waste – actionable actions with big impact. If pursued wholeheartedly, the circular strategies discussed could result in emission reductions of 31%: increasing fruit and vegetable consumption while significantly reducing the amount of meat eaten, reducing avoidable food waste within city limits through avoidance, redistribution and incorporation into animal feed, and scaling anaerobic digestion to produce biofuels, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
London isn’t just talking and doing nothing: this research is being used to inform programs like the Food Flagship Initiative, a three-year partnership between ReLondon, the Greater London Authority and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to design effective, data-driven policy Interventions to reduce consumption-related emissions from food. And while London may be the first company to take part in a Circle Carbon Scan and analyze its food system as a whole, it has a wealth of cases to draw inspiration from around the world. New York City, for example, is making progress Promote plant-based eating habits as part of its Green New Deal, with plans to phase out processed meat and halve purchases of beef at city-managed facilities like schools, prisons and hospitals. The program offer of Porto – from refreshthe edible food waste to be distributed ugly fruit (Ugly Fruit) Co-op that only sells fruit with visual defects – shows the city’s commitment to cut food waste by half, with estimated emissions savings of 92,600 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year – and economic benefits in the range of 79 million euros on top of that. The impact of how we grow, eat and dispose of food is increasingly being placed at the center of climate talks, and by the time we finally sit around the table, the sector will be flooded with initiatives – the combined impact of which will be powerful.
Initiatives like Fruta Feia give ugly fruit a chance to be eaten. Photo of Benigno Hoyuela at Unsplash
Cities, your time is now: take action on climate change with circular strategies
Cities are the future: their populations have grown rapidly over the past 50 years, and now they are holding up more than the half the people of the world. And that growth rate isn’t slowing anytime soon – projections show that by 2050 more than two thirds of people will live in urban areas. Particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – more than 90% are in coastal areasincreasingly vulnerable to the effects of floods and storms, cities have a critical opportunity (and responsibility) to drive environmental change. And as hubs of innovation, they are well placed to do so: cities are more agile than national governments and can take immediate, effective action by mobilizing local actors and increasing participation.
“Our collaboration with ReLondon has paved the way for London to reduce consumption-based emissions for food through circular strategies. The tool we’ve developed can also support other cities in their efforts to tackle climate change – and we hope London will be the first of many to step up and deliver on its climate commitments,” he says Jordi Pascual Torner, one of the creators of the Circle Carbon Scan methodology.
London is leading the way – but it won’t be the last to overhaul its food system. Cities around the world have a lot to gain and nothing to lose by going circular. And before they can, they need to measure: data and analytics are key to making informed decisions and knowing exactly where emissions are accumulating. Are you striving to drive change and become a leader in the global race to zero? Consider Commissioning of a Circle Carbon Scan for every sector in your city.
About the Circle Carbon Scan
How can cities make the most of the circular economy to reduce their carbon footprint? How can they better understand which activities cause the most emissions and how those emissions relate to consumption? The Circle Carbon Scan, being piloted in the City of London, is helping cities to answer these questions and take action to combat climate change – through circular interventions to close material loops, reduce consumption and reduce emissions. How?
- Mapping of material flows along the supply chain of a specific sector (from import to waste treatment)
- Using a model to convert these mass flows into the associated emissions
- Ultimately, a city map is created that can be used to pinpoint material flows – and the associated emissions – at any point in the supply chain
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