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With sustainable and plant-based diets becoming more normalised, attention has been given to food waste and how to reduce its impact on the environment; the handling of food and its associated greenhouse gas emissions are not far behind those of the energy and transportation industries. 

Food Waste Statistics

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China. In terms of area, food waste would be as big as India and Canada combined. These figures are staggering considering that 11% of the global population is undernourished. 

The UN estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, a third of the world’s total production. According to the IPCC, the loss and waste of food was responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Food waste also leads to a waste of the resources (water, energy, labour, capital and land) used to grow, transport and package the food. The FAO estimates that food loss and waste costs developed nations USD $680 billion and developing nations $310 billion annually. 

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Earth.org food waste by region
A graph showing the waste per person per year in kgs by region (Source: FAO)

While developed and developing countries waste similar quantities of food (650 million tonnes per year), in developing countries, 40% of the losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, 40% of the losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. Solutions depend on the stage these losses occur at; for example, developed countries need to focus on better retail practices and changing consumer behaviour, while developing countries need to focus on improving storage and distribution infrastructure as well as providing financial and technical support for better harvesting techniques. 

Food Waste Solutions

A number of innovative solutions already exist for countries looking to tackle food waste. In a joint collaboration with the company Too Good To Go, Unilever, Arla Foods and Carlsberg have added a new packaging label, ‘often good after’ directly after the ‘best-before date’ on certain foods to inform consumers about expiry dates versus best-before dates. The latter is meant to be an indicative measure requiring consumers to judge whether food is expired based on sight and smell. This new practice is being launched in the Nordics and will expand to other markets provided legislation allows it.

Technology in Papua New Guinea is being used to help local farmers’ livestock meet internationally-recognised standards. A digital tracking system helps verify important information about pigs like pedigree and what food and medicines they have been fed, giving importers and consumers greater purchasing confidence and reducing the risk of food being rejected and disposed of. This digital system was designed by the FAO and the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU); the broadband network is being improved locally so that farmers can update records easily on their subsidised phones.

Insignia Technologies has colour-changing tags that can be applied to products at the point of manufacture. The time-temperature indicators change the colour of the label according to the shelf life of the product, allowing restaurants to prioritise products that are about to get spoilt, thus reducing waste. 

UK academics are developing paper-based, smartphone-linked spoilage sensors for meat and fish packaging. They cost less than £0.02 each and are non-toxic and biodegradable, helping to detect spoilage and reduce food waste for supermarkets and consumers.

Global food waste initiative Winnow has developed software that tracks food being thrown away in kitchens. By using this software, businesses can record what’s being thrown away, assess the cost of the discarded food and get a detailed breakdown of each day’s waste to better manage their menus and reduce waste. 

Government interventions to reduce food loss and waste could include providing incentives or financial aid to smaller farmers and producers so that they can adopt more efficient techniques and practices. Organisations like the World Food Program help small farmers connect to people in need and also provide the necessary technologies for more efficient storage and distribution to prevent spoilage.

Local governments can support the set up of organisations like the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK that develops actions and milestones to help UK retailers and brands halve food waste by 2030. It provides guidance on labelling, packaging and storage and conducts and publishes surveys of businesses on their progress.

Updating legislation around labelling requirements so that the best-before and use-by dates are clearer to consumers, as well as ensuring solutions like the ‘often good after’ concept is brought in to markets, will also help.

Governments should also educate consumers on reducing food waste. The highest carbon footprint of wastage occurs at the consumption phase (37% of total), whereas consumption accounts for 22% of total food wastage; one kilogram of food that is wasted further along the supply chain will have a higher carbon intensity than at earlier stages.

Earth.org contribution of commodities to carbon footprint
A graph showing the contribution of commodities to carbon footprint and food waste (Source: FAO).

Cereals, vegetables and meats have intense carbon footprints and contribute heavily to food waste. It is vital to, in the case of meat, minimise consumption, while for cereals and vegetables, optimise how they are managed and consumed to reduce wastage.   

Project Drawdown, a global research organisation that identifies, reviews and analyses the most viable solutions to the climate crisis, ranked solutions to global warming and found that cutting down on food waste could have a similar impact on reducing emissions over the next three decades as onshore wind turbines. If small and large businesses, governments and consumers work together, about 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

Other things that consumers can do to reduce their food waste is to simply buy less food- plan your meals to ensure that you only buy what you need. Be sure to store food correctly; some tips include keeping the refrigerator below 5°C, storing cooked foods on shelves above raw foods and storing food in sealed containers. Finally, freeze your leftovers so that they last a bit longer.

How are the biggest companies in the world working to reduce their carbon footprint? Apple has announced a target of becoming carbon neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain by 2030. The new commitment means that by 2030, every Apple device sold will have net zero climate impact.

Apple has also said that any company hoping to become a supplier has to commit to be ‘100% renewable for their Apple production’ within 10 years. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, says, “Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation and durable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change.”

While the move has been generally applauded, Greenpeace says technology giants like Apple have a responsibility to act quickly in mitigating the climate crisis as they produce vast quantities of waste. Elizabeth Jardim, Greenpeace USA’s senior corporate campaigner, says, “I am happy to see that Apple has worked with suppliers to source actual renewable energy and that it has not relied on low-impact solutions like offsetting or renewable energy credits. But I will want to see how the company is further phasing out reliance on fossil fuels throughout its operations on a near-term timeline.” 

Apple has said that its plan to become carbon neutral involves investment in new eco-friendly projects as well as the purchase of green energy offsets to compensate for some continued use of carbon-emitting fuels. 

Apple says that more than 70 of the company’s existing suppliers have already committed to use 100% renewable energy for work on its products by 2030, the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road every year. 

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Apple’s Environmental Policies

The company has released a 10-year roadmap detailing some of the actions it plans to take. These include the use of a new robot to recover materials from the engines of devices returned for recycling so that they can be reprocessed and put back into supply chains. 

Other efforts include increased use of recycled raw materials in its own products, new solar panel projects to power its own data centres, investment in environmental projects, including work to restore mangrove trees and shrubs in Colombia and woodland-grassland savannahs in Kenya and work on eco-friendly projects to benefit local communities, including the installation of rooftop solar panels at a facility for disadvantaged children in the Philippines and the electrification of an off-grid fishing community in Thailand.

The second part of Apple’s plan is to increase production of renewable energy. New and completed projects in Arizona, Oregon and Illinois bring Apple’s renewable capacity for its corporate operations to over 1 GW- equivalent to powering over 150 000 homes a year. The company is also opening renewable power plants in Scandinavia, the Philippines and Thailand. 

By developing its own renewable energy projects, the company controls 80% of the renewable energy it uses today. 

Carbon Neutral Vs Carbon Negative

When a business is carbon neutral, it adds no carbon to the atmosphere. It can do this by balancing its emissions, for example by removing a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for every ton it produces, offsetting its emissions or not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place. This slows down emissions as opposed to reversing them.

To be carbon negative, a company must remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

Apple’s Climate Progress

In 2019, Apple decreased its carbon footprint by 4.3 million metric tons through design and recycled content innovations in its products. Since 2009, the company has reduced the average energy needed for product use by 73%. Further, all iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch devices released in the past year are made with recycled content. 

Finally, the number of facilities participating in Apple’s Supplier Energy Efficiency Program grew to 92 in 2019; these facilities avoided over 779 000 annualised metric tons of supply chain carbon emissions. 

What Are Other Tech Giants Doing?

Apple ’s aim of becoming carbon neutral follows climate-focused pledges by other technology giants.

Microsoft has pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050, to have removed the same amount of carbon from the environment as it has ever emitted. It has also announced the creation of a consortium involving Nike, Starbucks and Mercedes-Benz, among others, to share information on carbon-reducing technologies.

Amazon has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040 and Google has pledged to extend the carbon-neutral status it claims for its own operations to encompass its supply chain but has yet to set a deadline. 

As a carbon mitigation tool, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is gaining momentum among scientists and conservationists. But is it effective enough?

Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use hit a record last year after energy demand grew at its fastest pace in a decade, causing higher oil consumption and more coal-burning across the globe. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recorded 33.1 gigatons of carbon emissions in the global energy sector, up 1.7% from the previous year. While renewable power generation grew last year by about 7%, that was not enough to keep up with the increase in demand.

As global demand for energy continues to surge, emissions from fossil fuel use are expected to further go up unless the world nations start implementing innovative carbon mitigation initiatives.   

Negative Emission Technologies (NETs)–the frontier of climate crisis mitigation–might be an effective solution to reduce the global energy sector’s increasing carbon footprint. One of these proposed solutions, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), is now gaining momentum among scientists and conservationists. 

How does carbon capture and storage work? 

In a nutshell, carbon capture and storage is a process in which energy is generated from burning biomass. Carbon dioxide (CO2) produced during the process is captured and sequestered in geological storage units. In simplest terms, the BECCS procedure goes like this: plant thousands of trees which remove CO2 from the atmosphere, burn those trees instead of fossil fuels to produce energy, capture the emitted CO2, and then store it underground. It might sound counterintuitive to burn trees to cut emissions. But the ultimate result of the BECCS is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.  

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BECCS process

If executed efficiently, BECCS will have a significant impact on the energy sector’s carbon footprint. For instance, if the US could sequester CO2 using BECCS, it could reduce emissions by one gigaton of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2eq) annually by 2050. That’s a significant quantity considering the world emitted 36.2 GtCO2eq from fossil fuel combustion in 2017.

The Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that BECCS could reduce emissions by around 12 GtCO2eq per year by 2100 globally. 

BECCS is still in its infancy. As an emerging technology, it raises a lot of questions and challenges that are still being debated. Industrial-scale implementation of this solution needs substantial resources: trees need land, water, and even fertilisers; the energy production process needs new transportation facilities and industrial infrastructure. While the usage of a large volume of water may put pressure on the existing irrigation system, a massive amount of fertilisers may cause serious environmental damage.

A recent study on BECCS states that it would cause food shortage in the future.  The world will have to produce 70% extra food by 2050 to keep up with the increasing population, and that means designating more land for agriculture. For a global scale deployment of BECCS, the world needs between 300-600 million hectares of additional land–an area the size of the European Union. If such vast tracts of land are reserved for fast-growing plants as part of BECCS, global agricultural production will be seriously affected.  

Large scale cultivation of trees could also bring problems associated with monoculture and biodiversity loss. This argument, however, is often negated by BECCS advocates who argue that the large-scale cultivation of trees can be carried out on degraded lands that were already used for grazing. 

The scientific community is still debating about the efficiency and side-effects of BECCS. But in desperate times, as a carbon removal technology, BECCS might prove to be a good bet.

Our cooling devices use powerful greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and curbing them might be the key to tackle the climate crisis.  

Ongoing debates on climate change policies largely ignore a relatively less discussed mitigation approach: managing our cooling devices like refrigerators and air conditioners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the climate crisis.

There are an estimated 1.4 billion fridges and freezers in the world today. There are also 1.6 billion air conditioning units and countless refrigerated trucks, warehouses, containers, medical appliances, and many industrial devices that require cooling. The number of cooling devices is expected to reach 14 billion worldwide by 2050.

Environmental Impact of Heating and Cooling Systems

Every refrigerator or air conditioning unit contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable cooling. Dangerous refrigerants, specifically Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), were once culprits in depleting the ozone layer. But they have already been phased out thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

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Manufacturers today use a class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. HFCs do not destroy ozone, but they do form a blanket at high altitudes holding in heat. They have 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

Refrigerant Management and Climate Change

Refrigerant management — reducing emissions of greenhouse gases like HFCs from cooling appliances — might be the most impactful step to solving climate changing. An analysis of different climate change solutions and their mitigation potential by Project Drawdown–a research organisation that reviews, analyses, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions — ranks refrigerant management first among the top 80 possible solutions. The study estimates that by 2050 refrigerant management can reduce 89.7 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions, 5 gigatons more than the closest solution in the list: onshore wind turbines.

Refrigerant management, just like other climate change mitigation solutions, is not easy to implement. “There are weak regulations on controlling refrigerants, their leakage, and their end-of-life recovery,” says the study.  “There are no economic incentives for the recovery of refrigerants. Funding, training, technical, and informational barriers are also some of the limitations for the adoption of this solution.” It is estimated that the adoption process worldwide would cost $902.8 billion by 2050.

In order to successfully adopt the solution, the study says, new policies and regulations on refrigerant management need to be formulated and implemented worldwide. Strong regulations including a complete ban on venting of refrigerants must be introduced in national legislations.

As per the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, developed countries, including the United States and those in the European Union, will reduce the production and consumption of HFCs from 2019. Much of the rest of the world, including China, Brazil and all of Africa, will freeze the use of HFCs by 2024. A small group of the world’s hottest countries such as Bahrain, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have the most lenient schedule and will freeze HFCs use by 2028. But the countries may substitute HFCs with chemicals that are either toxic, like ammonia, or flammable, like propane, which might lead to other problems like air pollution.

However, emerging market-based solutions that attempt to tackle the problems of refrigerants offer a glimpse of hope.  Disruptive companies like Phononic, which produces modern  refrigerators, rely on thermodynamic science instead of HFCs for cooling.  While standard fridges and freezers work by creating cool air and blowing it throughout an area using compressors and refrigerants, Phononic’s devices use semiconductors that draw heat out and transfer it elsewhere. Without a compressor, the devices are also extremely energy efficient.  

Alibaba, the world’s largest fintech company, is using Alipay to tap into mobile games to fight desertification, greening China in the process.

China’s Gobi desert–the fastest growing desert on the planet–transforms more than 3600 kilometers of grasslands into inhospitable wastelands every year. Its expansion has eaten away hectares of agricultural lands and human habitats besides creating unbridled sandstorms that batter cities located near its edge. The Chinese government has been fighting the desertification with ambitious programs like ‘the great green wall’ creating a 4500 km tree belt on the edge of the Gobi, where more than 66 billion trees have been planted so far.  

Now an app called Ant Forest by the world’s largest financial technology company Ant Financial Services Group (Alipay) is sweeping across China rewarding its millions of users for their low-carbon lifestyle by planting trees on behalf of them to stop the desertification. Ant Forest rewards its users with green energy points for choosing low-carbon activities like taking public transportation, recycling waste, using less plastic, etc. Once users have earned enough points, they can plant a virtual tree in the app. For every single tree planted in this app, Alipay plants a tree near the Gobi desert.

Unlike traditional government-led forestation campaigns, Ant Forest is highly interactive and transparent. Users can choose different types of drought-resistant plants based on the number of points they earned, and monitor the growth of their trees in real time using satellite imagery. They can also share or pool their points with their friends to plant a bigger tree.

Alipay has partnered up with conservation groups like China Green Foundation (CGF) and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) to materialise the tree plantation drive. 

Over 500 million people–more than 6% of the world’s total population–have signed up for the app while Alipay has so far planted over 100 million real trees in Inner Mongolia and Gansu province, which share borders with the Gobi desert. The newly planted trees cover over 1000 sq km–an area almost the size of Hong Kong. The users’ behaviour changes and low-carbon lifestyle have reduced carbon emissions by more than three million tons so far.  

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How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

Screenshots of Ant Forest

Experts say that Alipay has gamified carbon footprint tracking and mitigation making sustainable living fun for millions of people in China. The app has tapped into the addictive nature of mobile games to reduce China’s carbon emissions.  

“Emerging digital technologies are enabling a bottom-up approach to the battle–avoiding greenhouse gas emissions gram by gram, bus fare by bus fare, day by day,” says Ant Forest’s Chief Executive Officer Eric Jing. “This is essential to complement top-down action, such as the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development. The success of the programme is a sign of the powerful change we can create when people are provided with the opportunity to live a greener life.”

Ant Forest has received high praise from conservationists across the world for their innovative approach. “This (the app) shows that digital finance holds a huge untapped power to mobilise people in support of sustainable development and the fight against climate change,” says Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “And this power is literally at our fingertips through our mobile devices.” 

According to a 1982 regulation, every Chinese citizen aged above 11 is legally obliged to plant three to five trees every year. Now, a large number of people use Ant Forest to fulfill their obligations. The app, which is now officially recognised by the National Afforestation Commission (NAC), allows users to apply for the certificate issued by NAC.

China has been tackling its increasing carbon footprint with aggressive afforestation, and Ant Forest’s digital clout is helping the country to achieve its 2035 target of increasing its forest cover by 26%. 

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