UN Resource Panel highlights food and fossil fuel as global problems

It was my big day in Brussels: The deputy director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Angela Kropper, and the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potocnik, were there for the launch of our report, The Environmental Impact of Production and Consumption: Priority Products and Materials.  It was the request for the report that prompted me to work on the  Carbon Footprint of Nations. The report was written by a working group  of the Resource Panel and published by UNEP. The evening before we spent  on our mobile phones, giving interviews to Reuters, the Guardian and other news outlets.

The story, as we framed it, was of a top-down assessment to identify  the most important causes of environmental problems – the most important  consumption categories, materials and industry sectors. Our assessment  clearly pointed to the importance of food production and fossil fuels.  Agriculture, pastures and fishing emerged in many assessments as  important – to a degree that surprised me. The problem with fishing is  that we do too much of it, at least in some location: we are destroying  the base of this renewable resource. There are more problems, however,  with agriculture: it is the dominant cause of land use and hence the  change of habitats for animals and plants, threatening biodiversity. It  contributes 70% our water use – and you know that water is getting  scarce in many regions. In Europe, food production contributes 60% to  the overfertilization with nitrogen and phosphorus – another important  cause of biodiversity loss according to the Millennium Ecosystem  Assessment.  Furthermore, food production causes 20-30% of GHG  emissions.

The work by Ester van der Voet, one of my co-authors, on the  environmental impacts of material flows in Europe clearly identified  meat and dairy products as the main culprits. “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet”  was the title in the Guardian – somewhat in contradiction to what I  tried to communicate in my interviews. It was, of course, not an  incorrect conclusion to draw from our findings, but it was not our  mission to produce recommendations. Rather, we wanted to put facts on  the table.

What I thought as the really novel contribution of our report in the  concert of international scientific assessments was not the food story –  it was the consumption perspective. It provides novel insights – into  what activities, consumption categories and products cause environmental  impacts. Our review confirms the triad of shelter, food and  transportation as important consumption categories, with the caveats  that transportation matters little in poor countries and manufactured  products overtake food in some rich countries – as readers of this  website will know. Our report highlights clearly that our causation of  environmental impacts is a strong function of our income – more  consumption implies more impact.

Looking at products and consumption clusters, one also finds that  much of what we consume is produced abroad. In fact, for some products,  the concept of location of production makes little sense – we see  increasingly complex products with value chains spanning the entire  globe.

I was pleased to see that at least some news stories picked up this aspect.

In our report, we took a life-cycle perspective. We looked at many  aspects and many impacts. Inevitably, there are trade-offs to make. The  picture was complex – reflecting a complex reality. Those who bothered  to look at the detail will still recognize a consistent picture in which  a web of causal relations and interconnections becomes quite apparent –  including those aspects we should focus on. The BBC’s headline captured  this wonderfully: “Sustainability: Choices, choices, choices.”

It is those we need to understand.

And to make.