Apples being picked before going into cold storage so they can be bought up until Christmas. Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Apples being picked before going into cold storage so they can be bought up until Christmas. Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The pressure of the coronavirus pandemic is adding to a widely held misconception that trade in food products is bad for the environment due to the associated ‘food miles’ – the carbon footprint of agricultural products transported over long distances.

This concept, developed by large retailers a decade ago, is often invoked as a rationale for restricting trade and choosing locally-produced food over imports. Consuming local food may seem sensible at first glance as it reduces the carbon footprint of goods and generates local employment.

However, this assumption ignores the emissions produced during the production, processing or storage stages which often dwarf transport emissions. Other avenues to address the climate change impact of trade are more promising.

Demystifying food emissions

In the US, for example, food items travel more than 8,000 km on average before reaching the consumer. Yet transport only accounts for 11 per cent of total emissions with 83 per cent – mostly nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) emissions – occurring at the production stage.

US Department of Agriculture data on energy use in the American food system echoes this finding, showing that processing, packaging, and selling of food represent ten times the energy used to transport food.

In practice, it may be preferable from an environmental perspective to consume lamb, onion or dairy products transported by sea because the lower emissions generated at the production stage offset those resulting from transport. Similarly, growing tomatoes under heated greenhouses in Sweden is often more emissions-intensive than importing open-grown ones from Southern Europe.

Seasonality also matters. British apples placed in storage for ten months leads to twice the level of emissions as that of South American apples sea-freighted to the UK. And the type of transport is also important as, overall, maritime transport generates 25 to 250 times less emissions than trucks, and air freight generates on average five times more emissions than road transport.

Therefore, air-freighted Kenyan beans have a much larger carbon footprint than those produced in the UK, but crossing Europe by truck to import Italian wine might generate more emissions than transatlantic shipments.

Finally, one should take into account the last leg of transport. A consumer driving more than 10 km to purchase 1 kg of fresh produce will generate proportionately more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than air-freighting 1 kg of produce from Kenya.

Shifting consumption towards local foods may reduce GHG emissions in sectors with relatively low emissions intensities but, when non-carbon dioxide emissions are taken into account, this is more often the exception than the rule.

Under these circumstances, preventing trade is an inefficient and expensive way of reducing GHG emissions. Bureau et al. for example, calculate that a global tariff maintaining the volume of trade at current levels until 2030 may reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 3.5 per cent. However, this would be roughly seven times less than the full implementation of the Paris Agreement and cost equivalent to the current GDP of Brazil or 1.8 per cent of world GDP.

By preventing an efficient use of resources, such restrictions would also undermine the role of trade in offsetting possible climate-induced production shortfalls in some parts of the world and allowing people to access food when they can’t produce it themselves.

Reducing the climate footprint of trade

This is not to say that nothing should be done to tackle transport emissions. The OECD estimates that international trade-related freight accounted for over 5 per cent of total global fuel emissions with shipping representing roughly half of it, trucks 40 per cent, air 6 per cent and rail 2 per cent. With the projected tripling of freight transport by 2050, emissions from shipping are expected to rise between 50 and 250 per cent.

Furthermore, because of their international nature, these emissions are not covered by the Paris Agreement. Instead the two UN agencies regulating these sectors – the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization – are responsible for reducing these emissions and, so far, significant progress has proven elusive.

Regional or bilateral free trade agreements to further stimulate trade could address this problem by exploiting comparative advantages. Impact assessments of those agreements often point towards increases in GHG emissions due to a boost in trade flows. In the future, such agreements could incorporate – or develop in parallel – initiatives to ensure carbon neutrality by connecting carbon markets among contracting parties or by taxing international maritime and air transport emissions.

Such initiatives could be combined with providing additional preferences in the form of enhanced market access to low-carbon food and healthier food. The EU, as one of the chief proponents of bilateral and regional trade agreements and a leader in promoting a transition to a low-carbon economy could champion such an approach.

This article is part of a series from the Chatham House Global Trade Policy Forum, designed to promote research and policy recommendations on the future of global trade. It is adapted from the research paper, Delivering Sustainable Food and Land Use Systems: The Role of International Trade, authored by Christophe Bellmann, Bernice Lee and Jonathan Hepburn.