Why we must solve the food waste problem to achieve our climate goals

Posted by David Jackson / 27-Oct-2021


Accounting for up to 10% of GHGs, food waste is the number one solution to mitigate against the effects of climate change. As crucial climate talks begin at COP26, the issue should be high up on the agenda for governments, businesses and policy makers. 

COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’, a United Nations climate summit where world leaders and other stakeholders coordinate action to mitigate the climate crisis.  This year will see the 26th meeting (thus COP26), and is of particular importance because it marks five years since the Paris Climate Accord was signed at COP21 in 2015. 

The historic treaty signed by 196 countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, although preferably below 1.5 degrees. Every five years countries must return to the negotiating table with fresh commitments, to bring emissions in line with the overarching temperature targets. COP26 will be the first conference where these commitments, known as Nationally Defined Contributions (NDCs), will be presented. 

The world desperately needs action. Extreme weather conditions resulting from the climate emergency are being observed with increasing frequency from heat waves in the US and Canada through to floods in Europe and China.

Ahead of the conference, the UN Environment Program announced in its Emissions Gap report that national plans to cut carbon fall short of what's needed to avert dangerous climate change. The report says country pledges will fail to keep the global temperature under 1.5C this century. But there is hope that, if long term net-zero goals are met, temperature rise can be significantly reined in.

Within the context of this important conversation tackling food waste must be a priority. Project Drawdown, an exhaustive analysis of solutions to mitigate against the effects of climate change, states that huge emissions reductions can be made if 50–75 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050. This takes into account the annual adoption of plant-rich diets, and could be equal to 13.6–26.0 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Reducing waste also avoids the deforestation for additional farmland, preventing 77.1–-75.1 gigatons of additional emissions. 

For context, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the atmosphere can absorb, calculated from the beginning of 2020, no more than 400 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 if we are to hit the 1.5 degree Celsius target. 

Let’s put this another way - globally food loss and waste accounts for up to 10% of global greenhouse gasses according to the WWF. This is the equivalent of nearly twice the annual emissions produced by all the cars driven in the US and Europe. Food waste is such a significant driver of emissions because when we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. And if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

10% of all greenhouse gas emissions is a lot when compared to aviation (2.5% of global GHG emissions) or deforestation (2.2%). Earlier this year WWF found that only 11 of the 192 national climate plans, or around 5%, submitted as part of the Paris Agreement mention food loss and waste. Food waste is barely anywhere to be seen on the agenda for COP26, yet it clearly should be. 

Elsewhere at COP26 companies are taking action. IKEA has made bold climate commitments to become climate positive by 2030. The wide-ranging program sets out a strategy to achieve this by transitioning to become a circular business, moving to 100% renewable energy, only using renewable or recycled materials in IKEA products by 2030 alongside a number of other initiatives. 

Winnow and IKEA have been working together since 2015 reducing food waste in their customer restaurants. Together we created Winnow Vision, an Artificial Intelligence enabled solution to measure and minimise food waste. The initiative typically sees food waste cut by 50% once live in each store, and the technology is now being scaled worldwide.

Check out how Winnow Vision delivers benefits in professional kitchens around  the globe

In the hotel space, Hilton is driving responsible travel through its Travel with Purpose commitment to cut the company's environmental footprint in half and double its social impact by 2030. The first hotel chain to commit to science-based targets, aligned with climate science and the Paris Climate Agreement. Part of Hilton’s strategy is to halve food waste by 2030 in line with Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.  

Hilton has also been an early adopter of Winnow Vision. Most recently the team at Hilton Tokyo Bay announced a 30% reduction in food waste in just four weeks using the technology. 

As a registered B Corporation since 2017, Winnow has taken significant steps to build people and planet into our decision making. Within our own operations, Winnow committed to reach Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (preferably before), in line with targets to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Considering food waste prevention from our clients, Winnow is an overwhelmingly climate positive business. For every tonne of CO2 emitted by Winnow’s business operations and products annually, the average customer saves at least 90 tonnes thanks to reduced food waste.  

The science is clear and well understood while citizens are increasingly demanding action when it comes to the climate emergency. Food waste is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and prevention must be a priority for governments and companies alike. The good news is that we have the tools and the collective will to affect real change, and a 50% reduction by 2030 is well within our grasp. What we need now more than ever, is action. 

Winnow will be participating in a number of panel discussions at COP26. Join us online or in person at ReLonodon’s From Wheels to Meals event on November 4th, and at the CivTech Alliance side event on Reducing Food Waste on November 5th. 


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