Data Dashboard

Food and Climate Change

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Note: Dollar values are adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars.

Global Food System Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Food production, harvesting, transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration, cooking, and disposal are responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). How much? The Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) estimates that food system activities are responsible for about 35% (18 gigatons) of global GHG emissions.

Globally, production practices, land use changes (e.g., deforestation to grow soybeans), and waste generation account for 90% of food system GHG emissions. Food system emissions are estimated to account for 25% of total U.S. GHG emissions. Production practices, transportation, and the retail sector are estimated to account for 70% of U.S. food system GHG emissions.

Note: a gigaton is equal to 1 billion tons.

Data sources: Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D. et al. “Food Systems are Responsible for a Third of Global Anthropogenic GHG Emissions. Nat Food (2021). doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9.

Rhode Island’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

The 2021 Act on Climate set greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets of 10% below 1990 levels by 2020, 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, 80% below by 2040, and net-zero emissions by 2050. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management estimates GHG emissions by economic sector. Available data indicates that Rhode Island missed the 2020 GHG reduction target. Food system activities and GHG emissions are embedded throughout Rhode Island’s economy (e.g., transportation emissions from food delivery, electricity consumption and refrigerant emissions from grocery stores) and are consequently underestimated by the Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory.

Applying the estimate that 25% of U.S. GHG emissions are generated by food system activities to Rhode Island yields a result of over 3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. This is a much higher value than the estimate for just agricultural GHG emissions.

Data sources: Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory.

Food Waste is the Most Prevalent Material in Rhode Island’s Waste Stream

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To see how embedded food system activities are in Rhode Island’s economy—and greenhouse gas emissions—a 2015 “Waste Characterization” study found that food waste (vegetative and protein) is the top material in Rhode Island’s waste stream: 100,000 tons (2 million pounds!). When food is wasted, all of the resources that went into producing it— the water, energy, fertilizer, and labor needed to grow food, as well as the energy required to transport, process, and prepare it—is also wasted. As food decomposes, methane—a greenhouse gas much more efficient that carbon dioxide at trapping heat—is released into the atmosphere. Food waste is also problematic during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of food insecure Rhode Islanders to more than 11%.

Data sources: DSM Environmental Services, Inc. et al., 2015, Rhode Island Solid Waste Characterization Study.

Rhode Island is Getting Hotter

Human activities, including food system activities, have increased the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by 50% since the start of the Industrial Revolution. A major consequence has been an increase in air temperatures, including in Rhode Island. The average temperature in Rhode Island from 1895 to 2015 was 48.6° F. From the mid-1980s onward, temperatures in Rhode Island have exceeded the average by as much as 4 degrees.

Warmer temperatures can impact both crop and livestock production, and harm people working outdoors.

Data sources: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Climate at a Glance.

The Ocean Around Rhode Island Is Getting Warmer

Ocean temperatures have also increased due to climate change. Readings from three locations in Narragansett Bay indicate about a 4 degree change from 1960 to 2012, a trend that has certainly increased. Some evidence shows that cold-water iconic fishery species like cod, winter flounder, hake, and lobster are migrating out of Rhode Island waters, while warm-water species like scup, butterfish, and squid are moving in.

Data sources: Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, Temperature data.

Climate Risks in New England

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As greenhouse gas emissions have increased, the frequency and severity of climate change risks have also grown around the world. The New York Times and Four Twenty Seven (a climate change consulting firm) identified the top climate risks for every county in the country. Across New England, the top risks are hurricanes and extreme rainfall. The frequency and severity of hurricanes and extreme rainfall events are both predicted to increase. Rhode Island is also expected to experience a high risk of future water stress (e.g., drought-like conditions).

Data sources: Stuart A. Thompson and Yaryna Serkez, September 18, 2020, “Every Place Has Its Own Climate Risk. What Is It Where You Live?” The New York Times.

Rhode Island Has Recently Experienced Abnormally Dry Conditions

Southern New England, including all of Rhode Island, are predicted to have a high risk of water stress. Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor suggests that Rhode Island has experienced more abnormally dry days during the past 10 years then it did in the early 2000s. This includes an extreme drought in 2020, and extreme drought conditions in August 2022.

Data sources: U.S. Drought Monitor.

Rhode Island Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

The National Centers for Environmental Information tracks weather and climate disasters where damages reached or exceeded $1 billion. Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced 371 such events, with a total cost of $2.6 trillion. The number and costs of disasters are increasing due to climate change, increased exposure, and the vulnerability of our built environment.

Rhode Island has experienced 30 billion-dollar events including 14 winter storms, 8 hurricanes, and 5 severe storms (Note: the impacts of most of these events affected multiple states). The 1990s were the mostly costly climate disaster decade due to the impacts of Hurricane Bob in 1991, Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and 6 winter storms. The 2010s were the second costliest climate disaster decade due to tropical storms Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. The first three years of the 2020s combined for 11.4% of the total cost of climate disasters that have impacted Rhode Island, mostly due to the impacts of tropical storms Elsa and Henri.

Data sources: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.