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When consumers want to reduce their carbon footprint, food choices matter

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We all make decisions each day that can grow or shrink our carbon footprint - whether we drive or take the bus, whether we turn the thermostat up or down. And we're going to talk now about three decisions most of us make every day that can have a big impact on how much we're heating up the planet. Those three decisions are breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Caroline Wimberly is here with me in the cafeteria of the U.N. Climate Conference in Glasgow, COP26, to talk about how our food choices can shape the future of the Earth. She's a food and climate expert who's been to five of these summits. So good to meet up with you here with the smell of fish and chips in the air.

CAROLINE WIMBERLY: Nice to be with you, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: About a quarter of carbon emissions come from food and agriculture. Explain where that carbon actually comes from.

WIMBERLY: Basically, about just over half are from livestock, either on the farm or emissions from the animals themselves.

SHAPIRO: Like methane emissions?

WIMBERLY: Like methane. Then you've got another about a third from crop production for human consumption. And then you've got, I don't know, about a fifth from the supply chain, which includes transportation.

SHAPIRO: OK. So let's look at the menu here in the cafeteria. Because we are in Scotland...

WIMBERLY: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...There is the traditional dish haggis...

WIMBERLY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Which is made from sheep organs.

WIMBERLY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: There is also a vegetarian pasta option.

WIMBERLY: Yep.

SHAPIRO: So which of those has a similar carbon footprint and why?

WIMBERLY: So definitely the vegetarian pasta option. I hate to disappoint all the Scots out there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WIMBERLY: Haggis, you know, has a traditional role and, you know, cultural value. But from a climate change perspective, pasta with vegetables is going to win every time from a low carbon aspect.

SHAPIRO: It can be hard to figure out the carbon footprint of a meal. But the menus here actually list the amount of carbon that each dish is responsible for, and I spoke with one of the guys responsible for those calculations.

HENRIC HANSSON: I'm Henric Hansson, and I'm one of the co-founders of Klimato. We help food companies to calculate and track the carbon footprint of the products that they serve.

SHAPIRO: We tracked him down in Sweden last week, and he told me his company usually works with restaurants and other food providers to create a number for each dish that's almost like a calorie count. And they were super excited when the folks at the U.N. Climate Summit asked them to do that work here.

HANSSON: We found out a lot of things. So first and foremost, there's been a large focus on local foods, which is very great. But we could see that was - which was also positive - was that around 59% of all their foods was plant based or vegetarian, which usually coincides with also lower carbon emissions. Actually, 65% of the food served on the menu is considered low-emitting dishes.

But if you really want to have a significant impact on your own food-related carbon footprint, it's actually more important to look at what you eat, rather than where it comes from. So in most cases, you know, the food production will represent between, you know, 80 and 90% of the final carbon footprint, whilst transportation will perhaps between be between five and 2%.

SHAPIRO: Henric Hansson of Klimato told me that if you have a choice between a local burger or imported vegetables, you should go with the vegetables because transportation is actually a much smaller part of the carbon footprint of food than the production. Is that consistent with what you've learned, Caroline?

WIMBERLY: Totally consistent. It's really counterintuitive because we tend to just think, local, better in all ways. And it does have lots of benefits, but from a climate change perspective, tofu from New Zealand versus beef in Brooklyn - tofu from New Zealand is going to be better. And that's hard for us to kind of digest in a lot of ways.

SHAPIRO: So to speak.

WIMBERLY: Yeah - so to speak.

SHAPIRO: Being able to choose a meal with a low carbon footprint suggests a freedom of choice that not everyone has. And so how much of this responsibility should be on the individual consumer as opposed to, like, the big structural forces that determine the price of a burger?

WIMBERLY: Excellent question. I think that both are extremely important. I think while we push for systemic change, which is essential, we still have to set an example where we can - because that does have impact - while at the same time demanding the choices be easier all around, that the easier choice is the more low-carbon, climate-friendly choice.

SHAPIRO: Food and climate expert Caroline Wimberly, thanks for joining us for lunch here in the cafeteria.

WIMBERLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.