Chart: The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain
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The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain

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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 TypeGHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced
Beef (beef herd)60 kgCO2e
Lamb & Mutton24 kgCO2e
Cheese21 kgCO2e
Beef (dairy herd)21 kgCO2e
Chocolate19 kgCO2e
Coffee17 kgCO2e
Prawns (farmed)12 kgCO2e
Palm Oil8 kgCO2e
Pig Meat7 kgCO2e
Poultry Meat6 kgCO2e
Olive Oil6 kgCO2e
Fish (farmed)5 kgCO2e
Eggs4.5 kgCO2e
Rice4 kgCO2e
Fish (wild catch)3 kgCO2e
Milk3 kgCO2e
Cane Sugar3 kgCO2e
Groundnuts2.5 kgCO2e
Wheat & Rye1.4 kgCO2e
Tomatoes1.4 kgCO2e
Maize (Corn)1.0 kgCO2e
Cassava1.0 kgCO2e
Soymilk0.9 kgCO2e
Peas0.9 kgCO2e
Bananas0.7 kgCO2e
Root Vegetables0.4 kgCO2e
Apples0.4 kgCO2e
Citrus Fruits0.3 kgCO2e
Nuts0.3 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:

  1. Land Use Change
  2. Farm
  3. Animal Feed
  4. Processing
  5. Transport
  6. Retail
  7. Packaging

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?

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Environment

Animation: Visualizing 140 Years of Global Surface Temperatures

Here’s a look at 140 years of global surface temperatures, highlighting the ten coldest and warmest years since 1880.

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Average surface temperature since 1800

Average surface temperatures since 1800

Animated: 140 Years of Global Surface Temperatures

For hundreds of years, Earth’s average surface temperature has been steadily increasing. And over the last decade, this global heating appears to have intensified.

Since 1880, the global average temperature has risen by an average of 0.08°C (0.14°F) every 10 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But since 1981, warming has been occurring at more than twice that rate, by about 0.18°C (0.32°F) per decade.

This graphic by Pablo Alvarez shows 140 years of global surface temperatures, highlighting the 10 coldest and warmest years from 1880-2021 using data from NOAA.

Global Surface Temperatures Over Time

Over the last century and a half, there have been fluctuations in global surface temperatures, with some of the coolest years on record occurring in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Average surface temperature since 1800

However, the last two decades have seen unprecedented warming, with the 10 warmest years on record all occurring within the last 20 years. Here’s a look at the 10 hottest years since 1800, and how they compared to the 20th century average:

The 10 Warmest Years

RankYearDeviation from 20th Century Avg. (°C)
#12016+0.99
#22020+0.97
#32019+0.94
#42015+0.93
#52017+0.9
#62018+0.82
#72014+0.74
#82010+0.72
#92013+0.67
#102005+0.66

As of this article’s publication, the warmest year on record was 2016, when temperatures were +0.99°C (1.78°F) above the 20th century average. After 2016, the second warmest year was 2020, when surface temperatures reached +0.97°C (1.75°F) higher than the previous century’s average.

What Factors Impact Earth’s Climate?

There are a number of natural factors that influence global surface temperatures, including phenomena such as:

  • Volcanic activity
  • Changes in the Earth’s orbit
  • Shifts in ocean currents

However, scientists believe that our current rate of warming has been undoubtedly caused by human influence, especially because of our carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities.”

In other words, while Earth’s surface temperature naturally fluctuates over the years, our actions have undoubtedly contributed to recent changes in Earth’s climate.

What Are The Consequences?

We’re already seeing the impact of this warming, as the world struggles with extreme climate events like droughts, heatwaves, floods, and an influx of wildfires in places like Europe, the United States, and Australia.

These extreme weather patterns could become the new normal if left unchecked, which is why companies and policymakers around the world are embarking on different solutions—from targeting net zero goals to implementing technological innovations that could reduce emissions.

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Energy

The U.S. Utilities Decarbonization Index

This graphic quantifies and compares the state of decarbonization among the 30 largest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

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decarbonization index
The NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report

Introducing the NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report 2022
Created in partnership by Visual Capitalist and Motive Power.

Download the Free Report
decarbonization index

The U.S. Utilities Decarbonization Index

With the Biden administration targeting a zero-emissions power sector for the U.S. by 2035, how are the nation’s largest electric power providers faring in terms of decarbonization? 

Together, Visual Capitalist and our sponsor National Public Utilities Council have developed the Annual Utility Decarbonization Index. The index quantifies and compares the status of decarbonization among the 30 largest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

Decarbonization is quantified by scoring companies on six emissions-related metrics based on publicly available data from 2020 (the latest available).

Why the 30 Largest IOUs?

Why does the Decarbonization Index specifically look at the 30 largest IOUs by electricity generation? 

Well, these 30 utilities collectively generated around 2.3 billion megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity (including purchased power), making up over half of U.S. net electricity generation in 2020. Moreover, they also served over 90 million customers, accounting for roughly 56% of all electric customers in the country.

30 largest utilities in the U.S.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that the 30 largest IOUs have an important role in decarbonizing both the power sector and the U.S. economy. Since the residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors all use electricity, the decarbonization of utilities—the providers of electric power—can enable emissions reduction throughout the economy.

Decarbonization Index Methodology

For each of the six metrics used in the Decarbonization Index, utilities are scored on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest), indicating whether they are trailing or leading, respectively. Scores for each metric are based on the range of figures for each metric divided into five equal buckets that the utilities fall into. 

For simplicity, let’s suppose that the lowest reported total emissions figure is zero metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the highest is 100 metric tons. In that case, companies that emit fewer than 20 metric tons of CO2 will receive the highest score of 5. Those that emit between 20 and 40 metric tons of CO2 will receive a 4, and so on.

A utility’s overall decarbonization score is an average of their scores across the six metrics, summarized below:

  1. Fuel Mix:
    The share of low-carbon sources (renewables, nuclear, and fuel cells) in the utility’s owned net electricity generation. We’ve assumed that the share of low-carbon sources can range from 0% to 100%, and scores are assigned based on that range.
  2. CO2 Emissions Intensity:
    The amount of CO2 emitted per megawatt-hour of owned and purchased electricity generation.
  3. Total CO2 Emissions:
    The sum of absolute CO2 emissions from owned and purchased electricity generation. While this overlooks the differing sizes of utilities, the rationale is that smaller unconsolidated utilities may find it easier to decarbonize than larger peers.
  4. CO2 Emissions per Capita:
    The amount of CO2 emitted from owned and purchased electricity generation per retail customer served in 2020.
  5. Decarbonization Goals:
    An evaluation of the utility’s interim greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals and net-zero targets. The baseline for this is 50% GHG emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050 (utilities with baseline targets get a score of 2.5/5).
  6. Low-Carbon Investment:
    The share of planned capital expenditure (CAPEX) for electricity generation that is allocated to low-carbon sources. We’ve assumed that the share of CAPEX for low-carbon sources can range from 0% to 100%, and scores are assigned based on that range.

The data for these metrics comes from various sources including company sustainability reports, quantitative reporting templates from the Edison Electric Institute, and the Climate Disclosure Project’s Climate Change Questionnaire filings.

Explore all six metrics of the U.S. Utility Decarbonization Index

NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report

Download The NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report for free.

The Annual Utility Decarbonization Index 2022

Before looking at numbers, it’s important to note that the Decarbonization Index is relative and compares the 30 largest IOUs to each other. Therefore, a score of 5 does not indicate full decarbonization or net-zero emissions. Instead, it suggests that the utility is doing particularly well relative to its peers. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at the Annual Utility Decarbonization Index 2022: 

Rank
CompanyDecarbonization Score
#1Public Service Enterprise Group4.7
#2NextEra Energy Resources4.7
#3Pacific Gas and Electric4.5
#4Avangrid4.2
#5Exelon4.1
#6Portland General Electric3.7
#7Dominion Energy3.6
#8Florida Power and Light3.6
#9PNM Resources3.5
#10Alliant Energy3.4
#11Consolidated Edison3.4
#12Fortis Inc.3.4
#13American Electric Power3.3
#14Consumers Energy3.3
#15Evergy3.0
#16NRG Energy3.0
#17AES Corporation2.9
#18Xcel Energy2.9
#19WEC Energy2.9
#20DTE Energy2.8
#21Duke Energy2.8
#22Entergy2.8
#23TransAlta2.8
#24Emera2.7
#25Ameren2.6
#26Berkshire Hathaway Energy2.5
#27Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company2.4
#28Southern Company2.3
#29PPL Corporation2.2
#30Vistra Corp.2.0

A small number of companies did not report data on certain metrics and have been excluded from scoring for those metrics (denoted as N/A). In such cases, the decarbonization score is an average of five metrics instead of six.

Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), headquartered in New Jersey, tops this year’s rankings thanks to its low-emissions profile and ambitious climate goals. The company is aiming to achieve net-zero emissions from operations by 2030—five years ahead of the Biden Administration’s target and faster than any other utility on the list.

Tied with PSEG is NextEra Energy Resources, the clean energy-focused subsidiary of NextEra Energy. The company is the world’s largest producer of solar and wind power and generated 97% of its net electricity from low-carbon sources in 2020.

In third place is California’s largest utility, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). PG&E had the lowest emissions per capita of the 30 largest IOUs at 0.5 metric tons of CO2 per retail customer in 2020. That figure is significantly lower than the average of 11.5 metric tons across the 30 IOUs. 

Rounding out the top five are Avangrid, a renewables-focused U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish Iberdrola Group, and Exelon, the nation’s largest utility by number of retail customers. Avangrid had one of the cleanest fuel mixes with 87% of its owned net electricity coming from low-carbon sources. Exelon is the nation’s largest provider of emissions-free electricity, generating around 157 million MWh or 86% of its owned net electricity from nuclear power.

Download the Full Utility Decarbonization Report

While the Decarbonization Index provides a look at the current status of utility decarbonization, there’s much more to uncover in the full report, including:

  • The obstacles that utilities face on the path to decarbonization
  • The detailed data behind the six individual metrics
  • The U.S. utilities ESG report card
  • The solutions and strategies that can help accelerate decarbonization

>> Click here to download the full report and find out everything you need to know about utility decarbonization.

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