Carbon Food-print

Did you know that the energy used to produce, deliver and dispose of junk mail produces more greenhouse gas emissions than 2.8 million cars?

This video inspired me to write this blog so I thought I would just share it with you up front!


Everything we do makes demands on nature. From switching on the lights in the morning, the clothes we buy, what we eat and the way we travel – so everything!

But do you know the the extent of that impact on the environment?  What’s the amount of CO2 that was released to produce that coffee you bought this morning? Do you even want to know?

Most climate scientists agree that the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the ‘greenhouse effect’ (read more here).  Human activities are changing the natural greenhouse effect created by the Earth’s atmosphere. In the Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years. Over the last century burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. To a lesser but by no means less significant extent the clearing of land for agriculture, industry and other human activities has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases. Below is a depiction of the origins of greenhouse gases by industry.

Photo: Wikipedia


Just looking at all the sectors and reflecting on my lifestyle got me curious.. what is the value of my current greenhouse gas emission or my carbon footprint? For the past 23 years what was the cost of my lifestyle on the environment? I found through my lifestyle I release 4.8 tonnes of CO2 each year. This is equivalent to 3.7 hectares of the earth productive area to fuel my lifestyle. You can calculate your carbon footprint here too!

I had no idea that the things I take for grated each day were having such a great impact on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. From the convenience of driving my car to the station to the food I chose to eat and the type of house I live in. It all takes a toll on the environment.

This got me thinking …If before you brought that coffee you knew that  to produce every half a kilo of coffee 5 kg of carbon emissions were being released – would you buy that coffee?  Personally if it were 7am I probably still would but I would reconsider my frequency of consumption or maybe swap to another beverage alternative.Consumer needs, desires and choices drive the basis of allocation resources in our economy.  So consumer demands and sentiment can have a significant impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions!

In the US, each household produces 48 tones of greenhouse gases a year. Transport, housing and food have the largest 3 carbon footprints.  Through reflecting on my own life and this research process I have three propositions for my business case of reducing your carbon food-print. Food’s carbon foot print or food-print are the greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing the food you eat. In the above chart that agricultural products account for 12.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is not the only sector impacted by the production of food. But reducing greenhouse gases in this sector is by no means the only solution to reduce greenhouse gases but it is the one sector that each and everyone of us has within our control.

Initiative 1:  Food-print Signage

On average food produces about 8 tons of emissions per household. The World Bank and IFC’s report Livestock and Climate Change concluded that half of all human produced greenhouse gases came from meat, dairy and egg farming. A person’s food-print is dominated by production emissions, where as food transport makes up a tenth of food emissions up to the point of sale.

Photos: Shrink That Footprint

Breaking this down there are two components that form part of our decision making each day:

  1. Where we get our food from?
  2. What we eat?

Starting with were we get our food from grounding flying food would have the largest benefit in reducing in greenhouse gases. In the UK just 1% of food transport is done by plane but accounts for 11% of emissions. Food that flies can generate more than one hundred times the carbon emissions per kilometre of food that travels by ship (read more here). If I eat an apple that has been shipped from New Zealand to Australia its transport emissions are relatively small.  But if I eat a lemon flown in from the US they are huge.  But how many people know the possible impact of imported freight food? I definitely didn’t!

The second question we get to ask ourselves is “what do I eat today?” It is widely understood that meat production has a big carbon footprint. Numerous studies detail the climate impact of livestock, but just how big is it’s impact on a person’s food-print?
This site compares the carbon footprint of 5 different diets. For each diet emissions associated with food supply were considered, emissions from consumer’s transportation, storage or the cooking of food were not considered.  The results can be summarised in this picture:

The Carbon Foodprints of Different Diets
Photo: Shrink That Footprint

An Average American’s diet has a foodprint of around 2.5 t CO2e per person each year.  For a Meat Lover this rises to 3.3 t CO2e,  for the No Beef diet it is 1.9 t  t CO2e, for the Vegetarian it’s 1.7 t CO2e and for the Vegan it is 1.5 t CO2e. Perhaps the most fascinating thing is that although the foodprints vary greatly, three fifths of each diet is identical.  In other words, 60% of food energy consumed is the same in each of these four diets. The share that is constant accounts for 1550 kcal of food energy per day and about 0.7 t CO2e of each foodprint.  So all the variation depends on the remaining 1,000 kcal per day. What we choose to eat in the remaining 1,000 kcal per day can have a significant impact!

What if in supermarkets underneath the sign that displays the price, there was an estimate of the greenhouse gases used to produce that item?  For example “250g steak produces as much greenhouse gas as driving 22.5 kilometers“. Would you think twice about about buying that steak? Would you maybe alter your consumption patterns to eat it less?

The benefits could be a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as consumers are more informed and can make environmentally conscious decisions while shopping. This information may even alter consumer spending patterns to consume less meat, egg and dairy which would feed back through the supply chain and reduce their production – curbing the highest source of green house gas emissions in the agriculture industry.

The stakeholders involved in implementing this initiative would be supermarkets, local farmers markets, consumers and producers of produce. Upon conducting a risk analyse the results are as follows:


The risks of supermarkets displaying this information would be that they divert consumers away from their higher priced goods being the meat, dairy and eggs or imported products. However they may gain customer loyalty from the goodwill generated from helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Overall they are the main stakeholder in this initiative but do not have much to gain in a financial sense. Local farmers markets are another key stakeholder and would have more to gain by displaying the carbon emissions used to produce the food as most of it would have been grown locally. However meat, egg and diary producers would resist this initiative as it may damage their profitability. Consumers would have a net increase in benefit from the increased knowledge. Producers of produce would have a new benefit of zero as some may be adversely affected if consumers choose to avoid their produce with this new information, where as some producers may see an increase in sales. Overall it is unlikely this initiative would get traction as there is not a strong benefit to the main stakeholders. However pivoting on this idea leads to initiative 2!


Initiative 2: App to Track your Carbon Footprint

With technological disruption certain stakeholder buy in can often by circumvented through consumer demand. Much like how Kickstarter brings ideas to market, consumers can now choose products or information they want. How would you like to track your impact? By just scanning a barcode you could have access to the carbon footprint of your food! We are talking the GPS coordinates of where you food originated and how far it travelled to get to your plate. Or you could create a personal impact profile in which you track your carbon footprint much like how consumed calories can be tracked.



Initiative 3: A Provocative Proposition


Because climate change is a shared global problem there are compelling reasons for it to be funded global. One of the few global bodies that could enable this is the World Bank or the IMF. Back in 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis the IMF used their Special Drawing Right (SDR) to give world governments the liquidity to stimulate their economies. As background the SDR is the IMF’s electronic currency that governments use to transfer funds among each other. It is a peer-to-peer payment method like Bitcoin but for governments. Effectively it gives the governments the power to print money with less macroeconomic effects than if they were to just print money domestically. So what if the IMF used SDR to give governments the opportunity to fund climate change initiatives?

Collectively printing global money in this way has several advantages over printing national currencies. The first being that spending money to mitigate climate change benefits everyone not just one country. No one section of society benefits at the expense of another. The second being the separation of powers as it takes so many (118 countries) to agree to issue these extra SDRs that it is unlikely that printing of money will get out of control. What comes out of this a a collective, controlled global action.

In 2009, Norway promised one billion dollars of its reserved to Brazil if they followed through on their goals on deforestation. That program has since delivered a 70% reduction in deforestation in the past decade. That’s a of saving 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is the equivalent of taking all American cars off the roads for 3 whole years! So what else could we do with other pay-for-performance climate change projects like that, organised a global scale?!

Just some food for thought!

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Thanks for reading 🙂


My Inspirations:




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