Consumer information is key to reduce emissions in food systems by encouraging behaviour change and increasing carbon awareness.
25 November 2020
  • Consumer Information for SCP
  • Sustainable Food System

Top Five Insights:

  • Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
  • Evidence suggests that the food system is developing in a direction that makes it more carbon intense, mainly as a result of world population increase and global trends to consume higher share of animal protein and highly processed foods.
  • Opportunities for mitigation include supply side and demand-side options. There is a growing recognition that a production-focused approach will not be enough to hold global average temperature increase to well below 2°C. Consumer information is key to advance on the three most promising areas of emissions reduction: tackling food loss, waste minimization, and changes in diet.
  • Consumer information can contribute to behaviour change and increase carbon awareness. Even though market penetration remains quite low, there is a good public reception to carbon certification in the food sector.
  • Consumer information tools can contribute more effectively to behaviour changes by linking tangible individual benefits (e.g. health or local production) with wider social benefits (e.g. emissions reduction, protection of biodiversity).

The Climate Impact of Food Systems

Between 1990 and 2010 the food sector saw its emissions increase by about 0.9% each year. Given the population growth coupled with rising global incomes, and the shift in consumption patterns towards a Westernization of the food culture (higher meat and processed food consumption), it is expected that the emissions in the sector will continue to rise.
Regarding food consumption, cost is known to be one of the main decision drivers for consumers. As a result, there is an increased pressure on food producers to focus on productivity, which often disregard sustainability aspects. In parallel, despite climate change being one of the most pressing issues of our time, consumers are often not aware of their personal impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. A fundamental change in consumption and production patterns is therefore needed and consumer information tools can play a key role.

Mitigation of climate change as a window of opportunity 

Despite rapidly growing levels of emission in the food systems sector, there is scope to drastically reduce them. Some 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted annually, which could be reduced throughout the entire food supply chain. Another high impact measure could be on diets modification. For instance, if consumers changed to a vegetarian diet and not industrially processed food, it is estimated that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49% amidst other positive environmental impacts. 
Alongside command and control and market-based measures that will influence the production side, it is crucial to put greater emphasis on behavioural change as a key element of mitigation, in particular by targeting the high income groups of the population  who are responsible for the majority of emissions (there is evidence that the world’s top 10% income earners account for 36% of total greenhouse gas emissions). 

The transformational power of consumer information

Consumer information tools can play an important role in supporting demand-side actions. Through carbon labels, consumers can learn about the footprint of different foodstuffs in a comparative manner (e.g. which one of those 2 bottles of milk is less intensive in carbon?) and absolute manner (e.g. is this product climatically problematic to consume?). It has been demonstrated that climate-friendlier choices increase overtime. In Australia, for example, after using green (low), yellow (medium) and black (high) carbon footprint symbols on food items, sales of “black” items (“bad” in terms of climate change) declined by 4% in the first month and by 6 % during the second month, which might be explained by a “learning effect”.
In addition, there is evidence to support that consumers react strongly to other considerations such as locally produced or “good for health” products. This shows that one effective way to raise appeal for consumers is to couple carbon information with local certification.

Infographics

To learn more about the importance of consumer information tools in food systems, download our infographic!
The Consumer Information programme has prepared six infographics which summaries some of the key findings of the report “Consumer Information Tools and Climate Change – Facilitating low-carbon choices in Tourism, Buildings and Food Systems” related to different topics. Share these infographics to promote the findings of the report and help us spread the word!

The Report

The report is an output of the Consumer Information programme of the One Planet network and was developed through a collaborative effort among the Consumer Information, Sustainable Buildings & Constructions, Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Tourism programmes. The effort was led by the United Nations Environment Programme.
The report details how the use of consumer information tools can support greenhouse gas emission reductions in three sectors – Tourism, Buildings and Food. It serves as a guidance for policy makers and business leaders.

You can download the full version of the report here.

  • Consumer Information for SCP
  • Sustainable Food System
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Agriculture and Fishery, Climate Change, Eco-labels, Food, Lifestyles