Why carbon accounting for food products needs an overhaul

Food companies’ product-level greenhouse gas accounting efforts are most likely irrelevant, states a recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) analysis. It found that emissions attributed to a specific product can vary tenfold to a hundredfold, meaning that "even the most conscientious companies will have difficulty in tracking their emissions reduction progress, and ill-intentioned companies will be able to find systems and data sets that allow them to report the lowest possible emissions."

Why? Because the data, methodologies and interpretations used across the industry are a mess, and the impacts of different production processes for the same ingredient vary astronomically. WWF concluded that these immense discrepancies render the results of product-level greenhouse gas accounting useless "both within a company’s own scope and when comparing across industries." 

That sounds like a ticking bomb to me. After all, many companies have started adding greenhouse gas labels to their product packaging and restaurant menus. And internally, companies have been incorporating emissions information from their suppliers into sourcing decisions. Consumers, investors, activists and governments have been demanding, noting and pushing back on those claims — the first lawsuits are already in process. 

There are several reasons why carbon accounting for food products has been difficult:

  • Food production is much more decentralized than other manufacturing processes. WWF told me there are over 500 million farms and thousands of packing and manufacturing facilities worldwide, all using different methods with varying emissions. 
  • The methodologies and datasets used by greenhouse gas accounting standards aren’t uniform. They employ disparate criteria for which emissions to include — for example, whether land-use change is accounted for or if offsets and sequestration can be factored in. Some datasets are more granular than others, using local or regional emissions factors. Others work with global averages, which can lead to very different results, such as when products come from regions with high deforestation rates. 
  • A single plant or livestock animal typically feeds into multiple, very different types of products, making it difficult to attribute the emissions. For example, a cow will be divided into whole-cut meats, sausages, bone broth, leather, etc. Some standards distribute emissions by economic value among co-products, while others use mass as a metric. Depending on that choice, a larger emissions share would go towards the most expensive or heaviest product. Companies have an incentive to pick the most favorable standard for their part of the product, meaning that emissions end up systematically underreported.  

Despite these inconsistencies, companies and investors are using information from product-level accounting to underpin investments, sustainability strategies, global and regional benchmarks as well as product rankings. A faulty and risky choice, in my opinion. 

Technology enables companies to identify hotspots and hone in on specific ingredients or suppliers as their most significant areas for impact.

Still, it doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to equip food products with emission footprints. Done correctly, it can render valuable insights. So how must the system change for this tool to be used correctly? 

WWF calls for three improvements that would facilitate more meaningful comparisons and targets: 

  • Agreeing on globally standardized methodologies and reporting r

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