Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Local produce and circular economies

Is it important to reduce shipping emissions by buying local produce?

In the past, cities were fed by their surrounding countryside, but now of course cities are fed by globalized import markets. This creates new technological, environmental and moral challenges. Can we reduce our carbon footprints, or net carbon emissions, by buying local produce? Would this only reduce carbon emissions, or does it have other direct benefits for nature?

A recent discussion I had about this topic was sparked by an article that claimed that rather than eating local, to reduce your carbon footprint you should stop eating beef, lamb, cheese, milk, chocolate, coffee, prawns, and other foods with large carbon emissions. (You can see the article here: https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local?fbclid=IwAR3T6NkvYC6xbvbNL5jfmScI9MPxXs-za-_T2lHqfVpfIskSR-pPGJ-6aFE). The point made in this article is that transport costs are a small, small percent of each product’s overall carbon footprint: land-use change and farming practices tend to be larger contributions, and for beef and dairy, cattle’s methane production is a large proportion of the overall carbon emissions. Why is transport a small contribution to most food's carbon footprints? Partly because, since the invention of the shipping container, transport is actually quite efficient. Lots of goods can be shipped together at the same time and easily transferred between land and sea. Thus, the per-unit emissions per product is not too high. Although this comes from a site called “Our World in Data” there are unfortunately some rather unclear elements in the data presentation. First of all, it does state that this is a global average, but neither the standard deviation nor the standard error are shown, so we have no idea what the variation around this mean is. Some farm production systems in some places have much lower or higher carbon emissions for the same products, but what is the range, and where are they located? More worryingly, in my view, the data seems to be on a per-product-unit or per-kilo basis, but this is not stated anywhere. This makes a difference.

To think about why this makes a difference, we have to think for a moment about the difference between the carbon footprint concept, and a different way that we could look at global carbon emissions: on a per-event per-sector basis. In the global footprint concept, all of the emissions that already happened in the world are divided up and attributed to the end-users of the products made via those emissions. So, several thousand square kilometers of the Amazon are burned, soy is planted, soy is processed, soy is packaged, soy is put in a container and onto a ship, soy ends up in Europe and is put onto trucks, soy is delivered to a distribution center, soy is shipped to a supermarket, you drive to the supermarket and buy soy. You, as the consumer, now take personal responsibility for 100% of your car emissions, and let’s say 0.0001% of all of the other emissions, from the burned forest through the last lorry delivery, which you share with the 10000 other people who buy the soy produced from that series of events.

By now you probably have been made aware that when you buy soy, you also buy the moral responsibility of the dozens of other people who made business decisions, from the decision to burn the forest to the decisions about delivery logistics. But that is the magic of the carbon footprint concept. It is also the magic of neoliberal capitalism: everything is the consumer's fault, everything is driven by demand. Moral responsibility can be bought and sold. Logically, if you now resell your soy to someone else, all this will be their fault. Following this logic, you should boycott the products for which you would purchase the greatest carbon responsibility. Thus, products that are more concentrated, like meat (relative to plants), will be sold to fewer consumers, and each consumer is therefore responsible for a larger percent of the carbon emissions that went into their production.

A different way to think about carbon emissions and how to reduce them is to think on a per-event basis, at a sectoral scale. The transportation sector (excluding private cars), in Europe, accounts for around 15% of total carbon emissions from Europe and the US (data from the World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.CO2.TRAN.ZS). If we could, through collectively preferring local production, reduce transportation emissions related to shipping, that could be significant. 15% is a substantial amount—much larger than the global contribution of all commercial airline flights, for example (2% of global emissions, https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en). Prefering local foods would also reduce demand for the kinds of beef and dairy production that are most harmful across not only carbon emissions but many other environmental and social harms, such as those on the Amazon “resource frontier”. This could reduce the total number of events in which the Amazon is burned and soy farms or cattle ranches are installed. Each such event emits carbon and causes other harms to biodiversity and local people. Ultimately, it is not really important who owns moral responsibility for the carbon footprint—the producer, the consumer, or the middle man. The idea is to move towards whole sectors that reduce the total number of harmful events per unit time.

Following this logic, you should shift your consumptive activity away from production systems that rely on the constant creation of new harmful events—for example, any resource frontier where forests are being burned or cut and agriculture is expanding. This means avoiding beef, soy and palm oil from the Amazon and south-east Asia, for example. Transportation of goods is also a carbon-emitting event that you can help reduce in frequency by favouring local products. If you are going to use your boycott power wisely, focus on reducing the frequency of the highest-emission events in the biggest sectors, regardless of whether your personal wedge of the responsabilty pie is big or small.

When we think about this, we might look beyond food production. Our moral panic around food is not matched by its importance in the global trade economy. Global trade in biomass (only some of which is food) has reached around 2000 million tonnes per year (these data are from UNEP’s International Resource Panel). This is dwarfed by global trade in fossil fuels, which is almost 6000 million tonnes per year, and is just half of the the global trade in minerals and metal ores, around 4000 million tonnes per year. Production of raw materials has shifted from efficient developed countries to less-eficient developing countries. This means there is a lot of energetic and material waste produced in making products for export to the global trade market. If things continue as is, it is estimated that 180 billion tonnes of materials per year will be circulated globally by 2050. This represents an increasing burden of carbon emissions from production and transport, as well as many other environmental and social harms from land conversion and pollution.

Because this is not sustainable, UNEP talks about the importance of decoupling economic growth from material production. Unfortunately, there is something of a contradiction when we think about the efficiency of global trade vs. the efficiency of resource production. Trade efficiencies occur when countries that can produce goods most easily, at lowest cost, export them. Sustainable and efficient resource production is expensive—it requires high levels of technological and social capital investment. Sustainable goods are more expensive. Fortunately, there is also a lot of money in the world. We need taxation systems and economies that divert money to making it possible for people to buy products sold at sustainable prices, not at efficient prices. There is also the curious question of where all this material goes. It doesn’t disappear. It isn’t hurled into outer space. The Earth is a closed system, so if all this material is being moved around, processed, and used, where does it end up afterwards? It ends up as waste.

In ecological systems, there is no such thing as waste, because one species’ waste is another species’ resource. Such is the genius of evolution. Given enough time, new physiological processes have emerged allowing life to profit from a huge range of resources and wastes. Thus, many processes in ecology take the form of cycles: different biogeophysical processes transform resources through a series of waste/resource transitions and eventually return them to their original form. This takes time, just as natural habitat restoration processes such as succession take time. This is why it is so important to reduce the rate and number of harmful events: if they are reduced down to scales and temporalities that match the natural recycling and restoration processes of nature, this is called sustainable resource use and can in theory continue forever. Resource and production efficiency is one way to reduce waste from production events, but the real challenge is to re-use waste so that primary resource extraction can be slowed. Economic systems that re-use waste as resources are called circular economies.

Circular economies can also be part of a local action perspective. How can local waste be used to create energy, fertilizer, materials, and economic activities? Our local waste should be one of our biggest resources. Long ago, Marx noted that the loss of London’s human feces through plumbing, washed out to the sea, represented a loss of the soil fertility from around England. Nutrients went into the food, where transported to London, were washed into the sea, and never came back. Indeed, England was suffering a huge soil fertility crisis, and was importing lots of guano from South America to compensate.

When thinking about how to make a difference to global problems, it isn’t helpful to think too much from an individual standpoint. Rather, think about what powers you have to affect the most important system components. Rather than trying to reduce your own per-individual ecological responsibility, try to increase your responsability. That is, take responsibility for change, become responsible for something good. Pick the biggest or worst parts of the system over which you have any power, and exercise that power. You might end up with a bigger carbon footprint than your neighbour, but you might also be reducing more total harmful events and thus bringing down the total global emissions. Work to make things better, rather than simply not participating in making them worse. If you can support local circular economies around food and other goods, or local agriculture that is sustainable and makes room for wildlife, this is a positive action that will help create resilient socio-ecosystems. If you live in a city, supporting urban agriculture and urban nature are both positive actions that you can take to become responsible for the environment in a positive sense.

Resources:

UNEP. International Trade in Resources, A biophysical assessment. https://europa.eu/capacity4dev/unep/document/international-trade-resources-biophysical-assessment
UNEP. Global Material Flows and Productivity: Summary for Policymakers. https://www.resourcepanel.org/reports/global-material-flows-and-resource-productivity-database-link

https://agriculture.gouv.fr/circuit-court
https://observatoire-des-aliments.fr/qualite/les-circuits-courts-de-lagriculture
https://www.lacooperationagricole.coop/fr/circuits-courts-et-terroirs/circuits-courts
https://chambres-agriculture.fr/exploitation-agricole/developper-des-projets/circuits-courts/

BBC World Service, People Fixing the World. Making your deliveries greener. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07y1vjy

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