Which Foods Have the Greatest Environmental Impact?
The quantity of greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by our food can vary considerably across the global food supply chain.
In fact, the difference between specific food types can vary by orders of magnitude, meaning what we eat could be a significant factor impacting GHG emissions on the environment.
Today’s modified chart from Our World in Data relies on data from the largest meta-analysis of food systems in history. The study, published in Science was led by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek to highlight the carbon footprint across different food types across the world.
The Foods With the Highest Carbon Footprint
Worldwide, there are approximately 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) emitted through the food supply chain per year.
Across a database extending through 119 countries and 38,000 commercial farms, the study found that, unsurprisingly, beef and other animal products have an outsize effect on emissions.
For example, one kilogram (kg) of beef results in 60 kg of GHG emissions—nearly 2.5x the closest food type, lamb and mutton. In contrast, the same weight of apples produce less than one kilogram of GHG emissions.
|Food Type||GHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced|
|Beef (beef herd)||60 kgCO2e|
|Lamb & Mutton||24 kgCO2e|
|Beef (dairy herd)||21 kgCO2e|
|Prawns (farmed)||12 kgCO2e|
|Palm Oil||8 kgCO2e|
|Pig Meat||7 kgCO2e|
|Poultry Meat||6 kgCO2e|
|Olive Oil||6 kgCO2e|
|Fish (farmed)||5 kgCO2e|
|Fish (wild catch)||3 kgCO2e|
|Cane Sugar||3 kgCO2e|
|Wheat & Rye||1.4 kgCO2e|
|Maize (Corn)||1.0 kgCO2e|
|Root Vegetables||0.4 kgCO2e|
|Citrus Fruits||0.3 kgCO2e|
When it comes to plant-based foods, chocolate is among the highest GHG emitters. One kilogram of chocolate produces 19 kg of GHGs. On average, emissions from plant-based foods are 10 to 50 times lower than animal-based types.
Bottom line, it is clear that the spectrum of emissions differs significantly across each food type.
Food Supply Chain Stages
The food supply chain is complex and nuanced as it moves across each stage of the cycle.
Although the steps behind the supply chain for individual foods can vary considerably, each typically has seven stages:
- Land Use Change
- Animal Feed
Across all foods, the land use and farm stages of the supply chain account for 80% of GHG emissions. In beef production, for example, there are three key contributing factors to the carbon footprint at these stages: animal feed, land conversion, and methane production from cows. In the U.S., beef production accounts for 40% of total livestock-related land use domestically.
On the other end of the spectrum is transportation. This stage of the supply chain makes up 10% of total GHG emissions on average. When it comes to beef, the proportion of GHGs that transportation emits is even smaller, at just 0.5% of total emissions.
Contrary to popular belief, sourcing food locally may not help GHG emissions in a very significant way, especially in the case of foods with a large carbon footprint.
The Rise of Plant-Based Alternatives
Amid a growing market share of plant-based alternatives in markets around the world, the future of the food supply chain could undergo a significant transition.
For investors, this shift is already evident. Beyond Meat, a leading provider of meat substitutes, was one of the best performing stocks of 2019—gaining 202% after its IPO in May 2019.
As rising awareness about the environment becomes more prevalent, is it possible that growing meat consumption could be a thing of the past?
Visualizing Global Per Capita CO2 Emissions
33.6 Gt of CO2 was emitted across the world in 2019. Here we visualize the global per capita CO2 emissions by country and region.
Highest Per Capita CO2 Emissions
Developing countries like China, India, and Russia are some of the highest producers of CO2 worldwide and will be so for a while. But the situation is far from straightforward—and looking at CO2 emissions per capita can add nuance to the overall story.
Let’s dive into the highest per capita carbon emitters and how they are trying to reduce their carbon contributions.
Leaders in Per Capita CO2 Emissions
Oil-producing countries in the Middle East are the highest emitters of CO2 on a per capita basis, but developed countries like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada also have some of the higher rates of per capita emissions.
|Rank||Country or Region||Carbon Emissions Per Capita (t/year)|
|#1||Middle East A*||19.5|
|#5||Australia & New Zealand||13.6|
|#8||Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan||11.2|
*Middle East A group includes Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates
Canada and the United States have per capita carbon footprints of 15.2 and 14.4 tonnes per year, respectively. Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand combine for an average per capita footprint of over 13.6 tonnes per year.
It’s worth noting that all of these numbers are more than three times higher than the global average, which in 2019 was 4.4 tonnes per person.
Energy Sources and Per Capita CO2 Emissions
Since there is a strong relationship between wealth and per capita CO2 emissions, we’d expect countries with high living standards to have a high carbon footprint.
But the data above shows significant differences in per capita emissions, even between countries with similar living standards. Many countries across Europe, for example, have much lower emissions than the U.S., Canada, or Australia.
Here’s a look at the top 25 countries by standard of living and their share of electricity production from fossil fuels:
|Rank||Country||Per Capita Electricity|
|% Electricity Production
(from fossil fuels)
|11||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||4,500||40.7%|
|13||🇰🇷 South Korea||10,458||65.8%|
|14||🇺🇸 United States||12,235||60.1%|
|22||🇨🇿 Czech Republic||7,534||50.7%|
|24||🇳🇿 New Zealand||8,880||18.9%|
The choice of energy sources plays a key role here. In the UK, Portugal, and France, a much higher share of electricity is produced from nuclear and renewable sources.
For example, only 9.5% of France’s electricity production comes from fossil fuels, compared to other developed countries like the U.S. at 60.1% and Japan at 69.1%.
G20 Countries and Carbon Emissions
This reliance on fossil fuels for energy production extends to the rest of the G20 countries. According to the Climate Transparency Report, CO2 emissions will rise by 4% across the G20 group this year, dropping 6% in 2020 due to the pandemic.
This rise is mainly due to the increase in coal consumption across these countries. Coal consumption is projected to rise by almost 5% in 2021, with this growth driven by China (accounting for 61% of the growth), the U.S. (18%), and India (17%).
Here’s a look at the current coal power capacity of each G20 country:
Coal use in China has surged, with the country experiencing increased demand for energy as the global economy has recovered. Coal prices are up nearly 200% from a year ago.
Plans to Tackle Emissions
The conclusion of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow saw several pledges and announcements being made by various countries. Here are some of the highlights:
- The world’s biggest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, pledged to cooperate more over the next decade in areas including methane emissions and the switch to clean energy.
- Leaders from more than 100 countries—with about 85% of the world’s forests—promised to stop deforestation by 2030.
- More than 100 countries agreed upon a scheme to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030.
- Financial organizations have agreed to back renewable energy and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries.
Many countries have pledged to do their part to tackle climate change. It will be an impressive display of global unity if global CO2 emissions drop significantly over the next decade.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The amount of human-made (or anthropogenic) mass, has now exceeded the weight of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, and plants.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.
In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.
In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.
A Man-made Planet
Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.
Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.
While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.
The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.
At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.
|Human-Made Mass||Description||1900 (mass/Gt)||1940 (mass/Gt)||1980 (mass/Gt)||2020 (mass/Gt)|
|Concrete||Used for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand||2||10||86||549|
|Aggregates||Gravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings||17||30||135||386|
|Bricks||Mostly composed of clay and used for constructions||11||16||28||92|
|Asphalt||Bitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement||0||1||22||65|
|Metals||Mostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper||1||3||13||39|
|Other||Solid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic||4||6||11||23|
Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.
Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.
As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.
Can We Work It Out?
While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.
At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.
As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.
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