2020 Cool Food Pledge Collective Greenhouse Gas Emissions Update

The Cool Food Pledge is a global initiative that helps dining facilities commit to and achieve a science-based target to reduce the climate impact of the food they serve. Cool Food publicly reports the group’s collective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually against a target of reducing GHG emissions by 25% by 2030. This update compares the overall food-related GHG emissions in 2020 to the base year and the 2030 target. Because COVID-19 affected total food purchases, this update also includes an estimate of the reduction in GHG emissions “per plate” through 2020.

Cool Food Pledge’s Membership and Data Collection Continue to Grow

Despite the many challenges related to COVID-19 in food service, the Cool Food Pledge continued to grow during 2020, and members collected a record amount of food purchase data to track progress in reducing their food-related GHG emissions. We received 2020 food purchase data from 38 Cool Food Pledge members, covering 95% of the 977 million meals served annually by the group.[1] To capture the broadest changes across the vast majority of meals served by the group, the headline numbers below come from our cohort of “early adopters,” a group of 28 members representing 86% of total meals served who are using a GHG emissions base year between 2015 and 2018.[2]

GHG Emissions per Plate Fell by 16% between the Base Year and 2020

During 2020, the group’s purchasing continued to shift toward plants. Between the base year and 2020, the proportion of beef and lamb purchases decreased from 9% to 8%, purchases of other animal-based foods decreased from 28% to 27%, and purchases of plant-based foods (e.g., grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, tubers) increased from 62% to 65%. Overall, this shift led to a 16% decline in food-related emissions (carbon costs) per plate.[3] This per-plate metric is especially meaningful when analyzing 2020 performance because of the decline in food purchasing during that year due to COVID-19. The 16% decline per plate is also encouraging because the group continues to remain slightly ahead of the pace needed to hit Cool Food’s sub-target of a 38% decline in emissions per plate by 2030.[4]

Total Emissions Reduction of 20% through 2020

To estimate changes in total (absolute) emissions, we estimated the group’s total food-related carbon costs in 2020 at 3,447,843 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), including 668,596 tCO2e from agricultural supply chain emissions and 2,779,247 tCO2e from annualized carbon opportunity costs. Animal-based foods accounted for 87% of the group’s total GHG emissions profile—with beef and lamb alone accounting for 67%—and plant-based foods accounted for 13% of the emissions profile.

Between the base year and 2020, the group’s total annual food-related GHG emissions (carbon costs) declined by 20%. The 20% emissions decline was partly due to the effect of COVID-19 on the food service sector in 2020, as the group’s food purchases dropped by 8% relative to the base year, suggesting that emissions will likely rebound somewhat in 2021 as business returns. More importantly, however, the 20% emissions reduction was also due to the continuing shift in the mix of foods purchased.

Toward 2030: Accelerating a Transition to Climate-Friendly Food Service

These results overall suggest that Cool Food Pledge members are on the right track, but they need to continue (and, in the case of more recent adopters, accelerate) shifting their offerings toward plant-based foods to hit the collective 25% emissions reduction target by 2030. Taking into account all members who have submitted food purchase data so far, if the full group can hit the 2030 target, it would reduce annual emissions by 1,314,572 t CO2e versus the base year, equivalent to avoiding the annual tailpipe emissions from roughly 285,000 U.S. passenger vehicles or more than 875,000 EU passenger cars.[5] We will provide a progress update using the group’s 2021 food purchase data when new data are available.[6]

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[1] We did not receive food purchase data from eight members in 2020 who had previously submitted data, and in these cases we held their food purchase and GHG emissions estimates flat between their most recent data year and 2020 to obtain the group 2020 estimate. Additionally, this total estimate of 977 million meals served annually by the group does not include members who joined during October 2021, after this analysis was already complete.

[2] A smaller cohort of “recent adopters”—17 members representing 14% of total meals served who are using a base year between 2019 and 2020—also saw some progress through 2020, but it was smaller because the cohort joined more recently. Between the base year and 2020, the food-related GHG emissions for the recent adopters declined by 43%, mostly due to a large drop in food purchases due to COVID-19 (42%) but also due to a small decline in per-plate GHG emissions (1%).

[3] The “food-related emissions per plate” is calculated as “food-related emissions per 1,000 calories.”

[4] As detailed further in the Cool Food Pledge technical note, global food demand (measured in crop calories) is projected to grow by 21% between 2015 and 2030. Reducing absolute food-related emissions by 25% while accommodating a 21% growth in food demand implies a necessary reduction in emissions per calorie of 38% during that period.

[5] This equivalency is taken from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s GHG Equivalency Calculator (EPA 2021) and is calculated using data from the United States in 2018. Passenger vehicles include passenger cars, vans, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles, and tailpipe emissions averaged 4.6 tCO2e per vehicle per year. For passenger cars in Europe, data from EEA (2018) and Helmers et al. (2019) suggest that the average tailpipe emissions of European cars in 2018 were 1.5 tCO2e per vehicle per year.

[6] This update was prepared by Richard Waite, Gerard Pozzi, and Jessica Zionts. Thanks to Edwina Hughes, Jillian Holzer, and Liqing Peng for their helpful reviews.