From fossils 💀 to food 🥖
Updated: Apr 13
Hello! This post is the third in my series The Picture: big and small. In the first two posts I looked at the ways in which the natural climate is changing, and how this is affecting people (particularly the poorest people). In this post I will be focusing in on some of the big emitters of CO2.
I did an Instagram poll a few months ago asking for some post ideas, this was one of the most popular. The reason for this, I think, is that words like CO2 and greenhouse gases are thrown around in the climate change discussion. But often prior knowledge is assumed, which most of us don't have (me included 🙋🏼♀️). So the question is, why does CO2 actually matter?
A few years ago, Leo (that's Leonardo DiCaprio btw...) made a film called Before the Flood, which gave a really helpful insight into all of this, as well as other factors of climate change. I would highly recommend it. Anyways, according to the experts associated with the film (they're legit don't worry) the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere have increased by 42% since the industrial revolution. "The primary driver of global climate change is the burning of fossil fuels"(Before the Flood), and the burning of fossil fuels produces CO2, methane, nitrogen oxides, and F-gases (they cause the greenhouse effect). CO2 is the most prevalent of all these gases.
This image (from Before the Flood) shows how the earth's temperatures have changed from 1913 to 2013. This trend has continued. “The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years. In fact, the degree of warming during the past four years has been exceptional, both on land and in the ocean” (The Guardian). And something many of us may not realise is that "CO2 is directly correlated to increasing temperatures" (Before the Flood). This is where the well-known phrase 'global warming' comes from. Refer back to this post for more info on why rising temperatures are bad for the earth.
So let's look at where all this CO2 is actually coming from.
The big global players
Now I am totally aware that not all countries are equal. Looking at CO2 as a whole, the United States, China, the European Union, Russia and Japan have contributed two thirds of the total CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2011 (World Resources Institute). Five countries are responsible for two thirds of CO2 emissions in 161 years, that is insane.
But I didn't want to focus too much on which country is the worst, because I think that makes it easy to shift the blame. We think that since we aren't the worst out there we're probably all right to stay as we are. But that simply isn't true. For example, the UK is not on track to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets (Carbon Brief).
Taking a closer look, as mentioned above, fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change. Globally the burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil etc.) is responsible for 67% of all emissions. Land (this includes land clearing and deforestation) accounts for around 13% and agriculture for about 11% of emissions.
So fossil fuels are the number one culprit to look out for. We mainly burn fossil fuels for energy - that largely means electricity and heat, industry, and transportation (The Guardian). Globally, emissions hit an all time high in 2018 due to an increase in the number of cars on the road and a return to using coal. However, "the emissions trend can still be turned around by 2020, if cuts are made in transport, industry and farming emissions" (The Guardian). I understand that these things are largely out of our control, but there are things we can do. More on that in the next post.
So now that we've looked at the big global players, I wanted to take a look at something closer to home. Sometimes thinking about things on a global scale can feel really daunting and distant. However, on the issue of CO2 emissions, there is something much closer to home.
Global food waste is the third largest emitter of CO2
So you remember above when I said that five countries have contributed most to our CO2 emissions? Well, "if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the U.S." (Climate Central). This is because all of the resources used to make the food, land, water, labour, energy, manufacturing, packaging, transport, is wasted. When I think about food waste I picture food that is thrown away (who doesn't?), but I didn't even think of considering all the resources used to grow and produce that food in the first place. Thinking about it blew my mind. An area of land larger than China is used to grow the food that is wasted each year (Olio). That is crazy...
As well as this, "when food waste goes to landfill...it decomposes without access to oxygen and creates methane, which is 23x more deadly than carbon dioxide" (Olio). Now this is something else I hadn't previously appreciated, our wasted food is a greenhouse gas emitter. As I said above, if food waste itself was a country it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 after China and the US.
Now, of course, food waste is not a country. Countries across the world contribute to the problem, and it occurs at all parts of the production system. In the developed world (A.K.A. where we live...) "more than 50% of food waste takes place in our homes. In contrast, less than 2% of food waste takes place at the retail store level (though supermarket practices are directly responsible for much food waste elsewhere in the supply chain)"(Olio). In the UK we throw away, on average, 22% of our weekly shop amounting to £700 per year (Olio). And "around 24m slices of bread are thrown out by UK households every day" (The Guardian). 24 million slices. Every day. I'll just leave that there...
If 50% of food waste happens in the home (in the West anyways), then that means that we, at home, are half of the problem. But that also means we are half of the solution. More on that next time (oh the suspense!).
I hope you've enjoyed this post. I learnt so much writing it, and was challenged to think about my own lifestyle. Throughout this series I have tried to paint a picture of climate change - the ways in which our earth is changing and why that matters, how people are already affected and will continue to be affected by it, and now by looking at CO2 emission contributors in the world and at home. In my next post I will be looking at whether our personal actions matter, and if they do what we can actually do about it. I hope you're ready!
P.S. please remember that I am also learning. I try to do a lot of research for these posts, and never make anything up. But I don't know everything (far from it), and I don't have the space to give you all the information in one blog post. So please be kind, and remember that I am on this journey with you.