The Third Largest CO2 Emitter Is Not A Country, It's Food Waste

Green building professionals are acutely aware of energy waste from old boilers or leaky building facades. But as we celebrate this Thanksgiving, here's another thing to consider: the extraordinary carbon pollution from food waste.

In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind China and the U.S.

That’s right. Food waste affects global warming. A lot of energy goes into growing and producing food—the fuel for tractors on the farm, electricity for irrigation systems, power to process harvests, etc. The greenhouse gas emissions from food wastage alone are a staggering 3.3 billion metric tons of CO2 every year.

And just as many of us travel for Thanksgiving, our favorite foods will also travel to reach our tables. We’ll navigate roads and airports as our turkeys, dairy and vegetables make their way through the cold chain—a refrigerated journey that ensures everything arrives safely from the farm.

But the cold chain isn’t as developed or reliable around the world. Globally, millions lack fresh, quality foods because the countries in which they live lack the infrastructure, technology and safety standards to guarantee the security of what they are eating. And in many cases the food rots long before it can be eaten.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that one-third or more of all food produced never reaches consumers due to spoilage and waste. Spoilage rates of 25 percent and higher are found in a number of developing countries—including many of the countries that are the top producers of fruits and vegetables globally.

We don’t need to—nor should we—grow more food. Agriculture already consumes 70 percent of available water supplies, and there just isn’t enough land or water in many regions to feed a growing global population without a significant change in how we do it. The solution: waste less.

While globally about one-third of food waste comes at the consumer level, like here in the U.S. where we buy too much and then throw it away, two-thirds occurs at the production and transportation level. Regardless of the cause, one in eight people go to bed hungry each night, nearly equivalent to all people living in the U.S. and European Union combined. Wasting less is a relatively simple and cost-effective proposition that could feed more with the added bonus of positively impacting climate change.

The good news is that we already have the technology to help reduce food loss. Refrigerated marine containers, trucks, trailers and retail food displays keep food fresh and safe and extend food supplies to feed more people. But creating an adequate cold chain for developing countries will require the coordination of government officials, technology providers, food suppliers, transportation companies and food retailers. 

The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy is leading the effort to improve the cold chain through the formation of the Global Food Cold Chain Council. Announced at this fall’s United Nations Climate Summit, the council will bring together manufacturers, food suppliers, transportation providers and food retailers to accelerate the transition to energy efficient transportation and refrigeration systems using lower global warming refrigerants. The cold chain will not only be greener itself, it will be an essential strategy to tackling the broader climate emissions from food wastage.

While the formation of the council is a move in the right direction, it’s critical that the private and public sectors do their part to create and deliver affordable, manageable, supportable energy-efficient technologies to the places in the world that need it the most.

So, as you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal, take a minute to think about the food on the table. It’s the right time to help raise awareness about the challenges of providing food for our growing population and what we can do now to make sure everyone has a full plate for years to come.

About the authors

John Mandyck
John Mandyck joined Urban Green Council in 2018 as its first-ever CEO. He capped a 25-year career as Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation, a Fortune 45 global leader in the building, aerospace and food refrigeration industries. He also serves as a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Business.