Beyond carbon, toward nature

Is a carbon-focused environmental strategy for agri-food companies enough? This article looks at the need for a shift from carbon targets to nature targets.
Oct 3, 2023

Carbon targets now play a central role in climate mitigation with several companies and regulators prioritizing them in sustainability policies. However, while addressing climate change is undeniably crucial, it is just 20–25% of a product’s entire footprint. A myopic focus on carbon targets has inadvertently cast a shadow over other environmental impacts such as water depletion, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.

In this article, we discuss why a carbon-focused environmental strategy for agri-food companies is not enough, and could even exacerbate other issues as a result. We will then elaborate on why there needs to be a shift from carbon targets to nature targets and present concrete steps for integrating a nature-positive approach into your sustainability strategy, so you can make informed decisions that address a broader range of environmental factors.

The limitations of a carbon-focused approach

Coined by Jan Konietzko, “carbon tunnel vision” is heavily centered on reducing carbon emissions as the primary solution to address environmental issues. This strategy, while well-intentioned, tends to narrowly focus on a single indicator and, in some instances, even leads to harmful trade-offs. A prominent example of this approach is carbon offsetting, a widely adopted strategy by organizations, which research suggests may have limited effectiveness and could even potentially exacerbate global warming. One of the reasons for this is because organizations might lean on carbon offsets to meet emissions targets without taking substantial steps toward transitioning to cleaner energy sources or minimizing their overall carbon footprint.

Additionally, the growing reliance on carbon capture, another popular carbon-focused strategy, has raised concerns that its widespread adoption could inadvertently perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels. This could hinder the crucial shift towards renewable energy sources and the implementation of more sustainable practices.

To illustrate under an agricultural lens that a narrow focus on carbon emissions is not representative of a product’s overall impact, we have utilized data from Agribalyse to compare the climate change impacts of common food products and ingredients against their impact on water depletion and land use. Please note that we have limited the data to these three sets of indicators for this article’s main purpose, but you can click on every ingredient to see the figures for all 16 indicators available on Agribalyse.

kg CO2 eq/kg = kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram; a unit of measurement used to quantify the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with a particular product, activity, or process ; m3 depriv./kg = cubic meters of water depletion per kilogram; a unit of measurement used to quantify the amount of water depletion associated with the production or consumption of a specific product ; Pt/kg = Measures changes in soil quality (biotic production, erosion resistance, mechanical filtration); This indicator has no dimension, but is measured in Points (Pt).

White rice and pasta are two pantry staples across almost every household around the world. As you can see on the table, both ingredients have similar GHG emissions. However, their impacts diverge significantly when it comes to water depletion and land use. Notably, white rice has ~50 times the impact on water resources and ~3 times the impact on land use compared to pasta. These disparities become even more pronounced when compared to the environmental footprint of an apple or a tomato.

An infographic that uses an iceberg to illustrate that only carbon emissions are above sea level to express that underneath, there are other environmental impacts to be concerned about such as water depletion and land use.

This may be a very small data sample but is enough to drive the point that a low carbon footprint does not adequately reflect a product’s overall environmental impact. Your product may perform well in some environmental indicators while falling short in others. Evidently, the sustainability of food is influenced by multiple factors — water consumption, land use, biodiversity impact, air and water pollution, even social considerations — and not just GHG emissions. This highlights the importance of tracking multiple indicators to arrive at a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of your products’ impacts.

If we solely track carbon emissions, we may miss crucial trade-offs in sustainability. Imagine an agricultural scenario in which a farm decreases its usage of nitrogen-based fertilizers to mitigate the emission of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. To sustain crop yields, the farm might then intensify its dependency on pesticides to combat pests that were previously controlled by the strong plant growth supported by the fertilizers. An excessive reliance on these pesticides can result in a runoff that contaminates neighboring water sources, posing threats to aquatic ecosystems and potentially impacting the quality of drinking water. The intended positive impact is undermined by its adverse consequences.

From carbon targets to nature targets

According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, we have now crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries outside of humanity’s safe operating space. Their latest report puts emphasis on how the planet’s resilience is beyond just climate change. Transitioning from carbon targets to nature targets represents a transformative shift in our approach to environmental sustainability. While carbon targets have been pivotal in addressing climate change, nature targets encompass a more comprehensive view, acknowledging the intricate interplay between biodiversity, ecosystems, and human well-being. By setting nature targets, we recognize the importance of safeguarding and restoring natural habitats, conserving biodiversity, and enhancing ecosystem services.

For agri-food organizations, a concrete example of incorporating nature targets into your strategy would be agroecological cropping. It is a sustainable farming approach that integrates ecological principles into crop cultivation. It prioritizes biodiversity, soil health, and reduced reliance on synthetic inputs while harnessing ecosystem services and adapting to local conditions. It aims to balance food production with environmental health, fostering resilient and community-oriented farming systems. To nourish an expanding global population, there is a need for practices that can supply enough food without harming the environment or jeopardizing the economic sustainability of farmers. In this context, agroecological cropping practices can and should take on a central role.

Concrete actions towards a nature-positive approach

At the risk of sounding cliché, there is no way to manage what you do not measure. A future-proof environmental strategy is one that tracks multiple indicators. It sounds like an impossible task but here are a few recommendations for concrete actions you can take to prioritize nature in your environmental sustainability strategy:

1. Understand where your nature-related vulnerabilities are

Start by identifying the critical areas where your company’s operations intersect with ecosystem services such as pollination, water purification and soil fertility. For example, you can do this by examining your products’ supply chains, beginning from sourcing raw materials to distribution.

2. Conduct a materiality assessment

This implies the identification of your major ESG issues through the impacts, risks, and opportunities that they may have for your company, but also the impacts they may have on society and the environment. This guide by Deloitte takes you through different steps in executing a double materiality assessment, which is a reporting requirement for European companies who qualify under CSRD.

3. Employ the LCA methodology across your product portfolio

Using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the most extensive method for assessing multiple environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, from raw materials to final disposal. By taking into account the entire life cycle of a product, it enables you to identify within your food supply chain the causes and levers for reducing your product’s impacts — well beyond just carbon emissions — and then to implement impactful action plans. The PEF (Product Environmental Footprint), a proposed environmental footprint methodology by the European Commission, is based on the use of LCA. It is recommended for companies that wish to market a product as environmentally friendly in the EU.

In Europe, especially with more and more frameworks such as the PEF and regulations such as CSRD coming into play as early as January 2024, the environment is fast-changing. The trend is moving towards employing more nature-positive approaches when it comes to sustainability, with calls for biodiversity inclusion in standardized reporting.

With that in mind, we would like to state that the PEF methodology does not explicitly address biodiversity. This is something that we at Carbon Maps endeavor to supplement the PEF methodology with by adding indicators to capture biodiversity impacts. We wrote an article that discusses how agri-food companies can start accounting for their impact on biodiversity.

This article is not an attempt to diminish the significance of carbon-focused strategies in elevating awareness of the environmental crisis. Instead, it highlights the need for a more rounded approach that captures the full environmental landscape. To build a truly sustainable food system for the future, it is essential to adopt a more nature-based approach that acknowledges the complex web of environmental impacts affecting our planet. And that is something that requires so much more than just hitting carbon targets.