Carbon Footprint won’t cut it (but Climate Footprint will)

Carbon footprints are dominating the climate change conversation. ‘Carbon footprint’ exclamations bounce around conferences, the industry, society, your dinner table. Rest assured that, at CarbonCloud, you will rarely hear about carbon footprints – but you will hear everything about climate footprints. Here’s why you should be hearing it from the entire food industry.

So what is the difference? Well, there isn’t one. Carbon footprint and climate footprint are the same calculation and quantify the same thing: the weight of planet-heating gases emitted. Then why doesn’t CarbonCloud go with the convention and talk about carbon footprint and call it a day? Because when it comes to measuring the climate impact of the food industry, the term carbon footprint is rather misleading.

When it comes to food, carbon dioxide is actually of minor importance

What’s in a carbon/climate footprint?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary source of humanity’s impact on the climate, responsible for three-quarters of the total warming of Earth [1]. The main source of carbon dioxide emissions is fossil fuel combustion, cement manufacturing, and deforestation [1]. Carbon dioxide is so very primary, all climate impact is measured in CO2 equivalents. From another point of view, CO2 equivalents is the unit we measure climate footprints (and carbon footprints).

What else does a carbon footprint measure? Or, what do we need to equate to carbon? What a relevant question! Carbon footprints also include Nitrous oxide (N2O) and Methane (CH4). Nitrous oxide is responsible for 6% of the total warming of Earth [1] and mainly comes from croplands (67%), i.e. food production. Methane makes up 17% of emissions [1] and is released from rice production, fossil fuel production, and the digestive system of ruminants. You are probably thinking of cow farts, but the overwhelming majority is actually cow burps [2].

Newsletter to-go?

Our special today is our Newsletter, including snackable tips, hearty climate knowledge, and digestible industry news delivered to your inbox

    Where is carbon footprint failing?

    Alright then, if carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas regarding human impact on the climate, as well as the unit of measurement, why not talk about carbon footprint? Because we want to measure the climate impact of food products – and when it comes to food, carbon dioxide is actually of minor importance. The majority of emissions in the food industry come from nitrous oxide and methane – or at the agricultural stage [3] – and the term carbon footprint does not effectively capture this for the food industry. In fact, it misleads people to think that carbon dioxide is the only greenhouse gas the calculation measures.

    Let’s try an exercise: How impactful do the dark gray bits of the following graph seem?

    If you guessed ‘an average of a quarter for the displayed goods’ you are correct (and very insightful). Now, how impactful do the orange and teal parts look? The remaining three-quarters are the impact of nitrous oxide and methane in the final climate footprint calculation. The picture for the greenhouse gas emissions in the food industry is reversed from the global emissions!

    Why should I, a brilliant food producer or retailer, care?

    The term carbon footprint has prevailed so much in the narrative to the point where it has a direct effect on the business decisions of food brands. Food producers and retailers that have the best intentions to reduce their climate footprint zoom in on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. You will recognize it in popular narratives such as ‘less plastic’, ‘powered by green energy’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘ship-only policy’. What is wrong with that? Absolutely nothing – it is essential! But it is the top-of-mind accessible part. Moreover, even when the entire supply chain reaches net-zero, the food industry will have managed to reduce the maximum 20% that comes from it [3]. The remaining 80% remains unseen behind ‘carbon footprint’ and keeps on heating the planet.

    That is why we insist on the inclusive term climate footprint – because it manifests in actions and determines the climate strategy. The term climate footprint correctly encompasses where the emissions come from, what the impact is, and vocalizes the potential to reduce emissions. This is where the term carbon footprint falls short because it sends the message that we only focus on carbon. Effective climate strategy starts with the right words!