Global Climate Action Summit: More Feast, Less Food Waste

At the Global Climate Action Summit, a group of state leaders and city mayors from around the world, representatives from food businesses, and innovation financiers joined together to discuss the climate opportunity of minimizing wasted food.

Even with the most sustainable practices, our food system uses enormous resources. Food and agriculture consume up to 16 percent of U.S. energy, almost half of all U.S. land and account for 67 percent of the nation’s freshwater use. And when food goes uneaten, those resources are wasted as well. Food waste is also a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for at least 2.6 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s equivalent to more than that of 37 million cars, or 1 in 7 cars on the road. The majority of those greenhouse gases are released by growing the food, though a portion is released as methane as food rots in landfills. In fact, food is the number one contributor to landfills today.

Recognizing the need for local action—a theme of the summit—NRDC and The Rockefeller Foundation recently announced partnerships with two U.S. cities—Denver & Baltimore—to work together combat food waste in their own backyards.

City-led Action on Food Waste Panel

@PCCleads on Twitter

At the Summit event, Project Drawdown set the stage highlighting that global food waste accounts for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. Lower-income countries require improved infrastructure for storage, temperature regulation, and transportation to get crops from fields to markets. But in higher-income regions like the U.S., significant change must come from consumers where most of the waste occurs or originates. Project Drawdown recognizes the need for aggressive food-waste reduction targets and policies to drive widespread change.

To that end, the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) – regional leadership from the Pacific Coast of North America including city, state, and provincial governments from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California representing the world’s fifth-largest economy—announced a commitment to reducing food waste 50% by 2030. Most notably, the PCC partners focused on prevention goals where the largest climate benefits occur. These jurisdictional specific strategies will engage industry, food retailers and brand manufacturers in setting industry-wide voluntary agreements.

"Addressing food waste is urgent. It's personal. Our communities understand it's not a "nice to have," it's an imperative, like the rest of our climate action goals. We are serious about achieving our climate action goals. We can not let food waste slide to the side. We have to act."

Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland

The need to engage food businesses was a theme of the event. Representatives of the hospitality industry described how better efficiency makes financial sense for them explaining that the return on investment can be immense. Global to local financiers are investing in infrastructure, technology, and connectivity to bring reduction goals to bear.

This Summit is not the first time cities have made connections between sustainability and reducing food waste. Mayor Sala joined the conversation to draw connections with his city’s Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, a 2014 agreement among global city leaders acknowledging the connections between increased urbanization and challenges to the longevity of our current food systems. The Milan Pact promoted strategies and actions for mitigating global warming gas emissions and the impacts of climate change on urban food systems; access to reliable, adequate, safe, diversified, fair, and healthy food for all; protection of biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, family farmers and smallholder food producers; connectivity with other urban challenges such as poverty, sanitation, land use planning, transport and disaster preparedness.

Nor is the Summit the finale of food waste reduction action. City networks like 100 Resilient Cities and C40 are drawing further connections between resiliency and minimizing food waste. These networks allow cities to learn from one another’s successes and more quickly scale effective solutions. NRDC’s Food Matters project, which is advancing transformative initiatives in cities across the country to tackle food waste, is working with cities and city networks to catalyze innovative policies and programs to enable the reductions envisioned in the announced goals.

It is uplifting to see a climate action discussion include food and food waste in the conversation; the world has woken up to the connections between food and climate change. The suite of solutions required to end food waste are well-documented, including improved operations efficiencies, expanded infrastructure, policy interventions, changes in habits and culture norms, just to name a few. Many of them come with a well-honed business case, while markets for emerging solutions are growing. The vast network of players in the food system must double down on effort and action, measuring and reporting on progress in a verifiable way to achieve real systems change.

The official Global Climate Action Summit side event was held on September 12, 2018 and was hosted by NRDC, ReFED, WWF, and Pacific Coast Collaborative, was organized by Next Course Consulting, and featured a reception with creatively re-used ingredients by renowned local chef Nicolaus Balla of Bar Tartine.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Balkan

Director, Food Waste; Food & Agriculture Program

Andrea Spacht

Sustainable Food Systems Specialist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
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