While the word ‘sustainability’ is becoming increasingly popular, its meaning is often unclear and varies depending on a person’s beliefs or lifestyle.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013.
Literally, sustainability is the capacity of conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. When it comes to food, it is clear that we do not simply take what we need from the natural world anymore. Instead, we are buying products that require a huge amount of water, land and energy in order to arrive on the supermarket shelf.
According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, “greenhouse gases are an inevitable consequence of food production”. If emissions are an inevitable consequence of the industry, food waste collateral damage. Around 18m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced each year from avoidable food waste.
In order to better understand how our food can or cannot be sustainable and what this means exactly, Blue & Green Tomorrow spoke to Patrick Holden, founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust.
How would you define sustainable food?
Sustainable food can be described as food that causes minimal damage to the environment and benefits the health and wellbeing of local people.
When is food unsustainable?
Food is unsustainable when its production is dependent on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and nitrate-based fertilisers. Unsustainable foods systems are often farmed in an intensive manner putting pressure on natural resources, an example is the overexploitation of the land resulting a reduction in soil fertility. They also often have long supply chains where food is exported internationally therefore providing little benefit to the local people and area where the food was originally farmed.
What are the main issues related to food to which consumers should pay attention?
Consumers have an immense power to make a difference. It is incredibly important therefore that people ensure they know where the food they buy comes from and how it was produced. Buying locally produced food can re-connect the consumer with our food production system, as it allows them to feel like they are making a difference in boosting their local economy and benefiting the local environment.
An example would be buying organically produced milk. Although it can cost a few pence extra, this small difference contributes hugely to the quality of life of dairy cows and helps organic producers break through into the mainstream market.
Which are the most unsustainable products that are consumed more often?
An example of an unsustainable food product that is often bought is cheap meat. The Sustainable Food Trust encourages consumers to eat less meat, and when they do eat meat to buy a better quality product, for example pasture fed or organically produced. This therefore means that consumers don’t spend any more on meat than they would usually, but just eat it less regularly, consequently benefiting farmers producing high quality sustainable products.
Why do you think people should pay attention to the way food is produced?
At present, the impact our current food production system is having on our physical environment and public health is in no way factored into the price of our food. We need to make the public aware of these distortions in the economic food market and empower them to help make a difference.
However, it is a common perception that if we ensure the true-cost of food is paid for, the price of food will consequently rise. But with global demand for food ever increasing, the price of food is rising already. This is something Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco, admitted earlier this year and the UN has now predicted a 40% rise in the cost of food over the next decade.
Therefore, with the pressure on food production increasing, against the backdrop of climate change and the rising cost of fossil fuels, it is important to push for changes in our food system that will prevent prices rising as much as they might otherwise do.
Do you think that recent food scandals such as horsemeat have somehow impacted people’s shopping decisions?
Yes. Food scares such as the horsemeat scandal will make many people question the quality and even the physical content of the food they buy in the supermarkets. We hope that it will encourage people to ensure they know exactly where their meat has come from and whether it has been produced in a sustainable manner.
By losing consumer trust, the large supermarket chains may in fact be doing sustainable farmers a favour by converting customers into buying locally produced food from a known and trusted source.
What would you say to people who want to shop and spend ethically and sustainably?
First, by paying attention to the details on food labels in supermarkets, consumers can find out where their food is sourced and other information such as whether the product was fairly traded.
Farmers’ markets and farm shops are a great way to buy good quality, locally produced food, and buying food direct from supplies through a local co-operative initiative can be a good way to buy dry goods such as rice and beans in bulk and then divide them out between members.
Most importantly consumers need to remember that their choices can make a significant difference and have a huge impact in our global food system.
In our current climate, moving towards a more globally sustainable food production system is critically important. Our current food system privileges unsustainable farming practices by redistributing the costs of their damaging impacts from the private sector to the public sector.
The Sustainable Food Trust’s main area of work is in the development of a true-cost accounting system that ensures the impacts our current industrialised food production have on the natural environment and public health are factored into the price of our food. By implementing this true-cost system we can make visible the real cost of food by putting a price on the natural ‘capital’ we use. This is especially important considering we are continuously nearing the tipping points of climate change, ecosystem collapse and increasing health issues such as diabetes and obesity.
If we could place a clear monetary value on the ‘externalities’ or impacts, this would enable the introduction of a range of taxes and incentives that could potentially ensure, that in the future, farmers and food producers who cause damage to the environment and human health would be penalised, whilst those who protect the environment and promote human health would be properly rewarded for these beneficial outcomes. This would rebalance our food system and ensure that sustainable food production is more economically viable than its unsustainable counterpart.
Patrick Holden is founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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