Trade and the environment: why it's not all about air miles

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ALAN BEATTIE: COVID has done a lot of damage to a lot of supply chains around the world economy. But even before it hit, many people were asking about the downsides of global trade. And with climate change one of the most pressing concerns of the public and policy makers worldwide, one particular issue was the carbon footprint of air freighting and shipping goods, particularly food and flowers around the world.

No one knows what COVID might end up doing to global supply chains. But it wouldn’t be surprising if some companies decided to buy more from closer to home. And if that means fewer planes and cargo ships, that’s good for the environment as well, right? Well, not necessarily. Closer doesn’t always mean greener.

Take flowers, for instance. If you live in Britain, and you want to buy flowers for your Valentine, or anytime during winter, where all they have been grown? If their roses, probably not locally, at least not outside. People don’t want to have to wait till summer to express their affection.

So a supply chain for flowers thousands of miles long has carefully been constructed. That means more than half of the UK’s Valentine’s roses are flown in from Kenya. The same is true if Brits want to eat kiwi fruit outside the European growing season, or mangoes at more or less anytime. A lot of this kind of perishable produce, things like vegetables and fruits and flowers, normally comes to shops having been flown into airport warehouses across the country.

Those supply chains have been hammered by COVID. Social distancing and cancelled flights have cut Kenyan growers off from their rich world markets. Tonnes of produce destined for British consumers have been left to rot. And even when those companies try to establish themselves, worries about carbon footprints and climate change will still be there.

Carbon has become an increasingly important issue in trade. The European Union is even thinking of imposing a carbon border tax on imports of goods from countries that don’t tax their own carbon emissions. This has also, in effect banned the import of palm oil from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia because of its impact on deforestation. Consumers too, are looking at the impact of what they buy. A new generation of campaigners is urging people to eat less meat, avoid air travel in normal times, and buy local produce, which people are more likely to do anyway during the pandemic.

The concept of food miles, the distance from field to fork is used to guide consumers. And its aim is to reduce the distance travelled by food products and to get households to buy healthily for the world, not just for themselves. The same approach has been taken to flowers. If you want to buy flowers closer to home, you can get them from the Netherlands, like a lot of the blooms in London’s New Covent Garden Market, which is still at least partially managing to operate throughout the pandemic.

Surely that’s a smaller carbon footprint. Actually, no. Distance isn’t everything. You see, a lot depends on how the flowers or the food are produced. The Netherlands uses heated greenhouses, while Kenyan roses are grown in the sunshine. And in fact, some research suggests that the energy that goes into hothouse cultivation actually produces a bigger carbon footprint than flowers sent by airfreight which have grown in the sun.

Calculating a carbon footprint is complex, and the picture may shift depending on the inputs. You might need electricity for irrigation and refrigeration. You might use more renewable energy to produce electricity for hothouses, electric vehicles for transportation.

One country particularly exercised throughout this is New Zealand, 12,000 miles away from London. It’s well known as a world-class producer of lamb, which it normally sells via butchers and supermarkets across the UK. It also sells dairy and apples and kiwi fruit throughout Europe and further afield. And it’s still continuing to ship around the world, despite the pandemic.

And it’s hard to accuse New Zealanders of being environmental vandals. They passed a law to go carbon neutral by 2050. They’re even using special chambers to measure how often sheep belch methane in order to breed sheep with a lower methane output, and so minimise greenhouse gases. But like the Kenyans, New Zealanders are concerned that the concept of food miles could be a threat to their exports.

So what’s the reality? Lincoln University in New Zealand compared carbon emissions in producing lamb, dairy, and apples in New Zealand to the UK. They showed that because New Zealand farmers use less artificial feed and fertiliser and more renewable energy, their produce is less carbon intensive, even once you’ve shipped it all the way to Britain.

No estimate is conclusive. But again, it’s clear that it is much more than just distance. It’s easy to think of airliners burning fuel. It’s harder to think of all the other inputs that affect carbon emissions.

Transport is usually a tiny part of the carbon footprint of food. It’s much more what you consume and where it’s from that matters. Even beef or lamb production that strives to be eco-friendly creates a lot more carbon emissions than plant-based foods like beans or rice.

COVID will cause a lot of supply chains to be reengineered, but not necessarily for the better for consumers or the planet’s climate. Long distance by air freight or cargo ship doesn’t necessarily mean bad. And short distance doesn’t necessarily mean good.

For those Kenyan farmers currently struggling with the loss of their incomes, growing flowers is one of their best ways of making a living. So before we use climate change as a reason to cut them off permanently from their European markets, let’s make sure you’ve done the sums right.