Net zero ambition exceeds carbon neutrality

The poultry industry needs to fully understand the difference between net zero and carbon neutral in its drive to increase sustainability.

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Poultry International January 2023 Page 30

To achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, significant changes to every dimension of human activity are needed. For the animal protein sector, which accounts for 14.5% of human-derived greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, this means ensuring that the animal protein requirements of the global population are met in a safe and affordable manner while animal proteins’ environmental impact is systematically reduced. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture’s direct GHG emissions will increase by 6% in the next decade, with livestock accounting for 90% of this.  

This is a challenge for everyone. New technologies provide the possibility to control and reduce carbon emissions from farming and to capture value from net zero production approaches. To appreciate the potential of these new ways of operating, it is important to understand what net zero means, and how it differs from the concept of carbon neutrality.  

Net zero vs. carbon neutral

The World Resources Institute, a global research non-profit organization dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability, economic opportunity and human health and well-being, explains that: “Net zero emissions will be achieved when all GHG emissions released by human activities are counterbalanced by removing GHGs from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon removal.” 

The key word here is "removing." Net zero is about making tangible and measurable carbon reductions within production systems and actively targeting the lowest possible emissions levels – which often means significant changes to the production cycle. Carbon neutrality, by contrast, involves avoiding increases in emissions and achieving carbon reduction through carbon offsets, also known as carbon credits. 

The carbon credit system

Carbon credits originated in sulfur pollution reduction endeavors during the 1990s by means of a so-called "cap-and-trade" system. A carbon credit is a certificate testifying that an organization has paid to have an amount of carbon dioxide removed from the environment. Purchasing these credits is used to fund projects to redress imbalances in the Earth’s ecosystems. 

Crucially, this implies that the carbon dioxide has been produced in the first place. For this reason, the more holistic concept of net zero is gaining increasing traction. 

Decarbonizing our food system

Decarbonizing our food systems is extremely challenging due to three main factors. The first is the scale of the intervention required. The second is the nature of food systems, which are highly complex and interdependent. Finally, there is the factor of time. For a genuinely sustainable animal protein industry to develop, we must deliver significant, measurable environmental footprint reductions by 2030, ahead of the 2050 target. 

Significant improvement is achievable. Implementing best practices from the most efficient farm systems to all farms would reduce the GHG footprint of ruminants by 37-41% and of poultry by 17%, according to the FAO. 

However, you don´t improve what you don´t measure. Each farm is different, requiring a tailored approach. The key to improvement is understanding emissions’ scale and source – which means determining the farm’s environmental footprint using the latest Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools combined with the farm’s primary feed and farm data.  

Thanks to the latest development of LCA measurement tools, the environmental footprint of animal protein at farm level is becoming better understood and easier to assess – elucidating the farm’s actual environmental footprint and an understanding of how and where to make improvements. 

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