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Assessing Denmark’s global food trade-related environmental impacts

Research output: Book/anthology/dissertation/reportPh.D. thesis


  • PhD_thesis

    Submitted manuscript, 13.6 MB, PDF document

The demand for meat and dairy products is expected to double by 2050 due to population growth and changing consumption patterns worldwide. According to the IPCC, meeting the target of keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C by the middle of the century calls for massive emission cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and natural resource use consumption associated with the global food system. In recent times, globalization and increased trade of food products has resulted in the displacement of environmental impacts related to local food consumption to region overseas. Therefore, global mitigation options for agri-food climate- and resource use pressures requires that countries monitor and lower the environmental pressures from food consumption within and beyond their local borders. The current Danish environmental policy lays down ambitious targets aimed at mitigating the territorial environmental impacts of Denmark’s agri-food industry, with GHG emissions, water quality and biodiversity at the centre of policy attention. However, a shortcoming of Denmark’s present climate and environmental policies is that they do not tackle the environmental pressures associated with food products that are consumed within Danish borders but produced overseas. In this context, a growing body of research proposes that allow country-specific estimation of environmental pressures from consumption of locally sourced and imported products.
This PhD project applies two consumption-based (CB) environmental accounting methods, namely the environmentally extended multi-regional input-output analysis and biophysical model of agricultural trade to evaluate Denmark’s national and subnational food-related CB accounts (or footprints) for GHG emissions (i.e. carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)), and cropland, grassland and blue water use from 1995 to 2014. Secondly, the thesis quantifies the potential for Denmark to reduce its global food-related GHG emissions and resource consumption based on scenarios that include household dietary shifts towards plant-based foods and food waste prevention as well as improvements in livestock feed use efficiencies.
From 2000 to 2013, Denmark’s per capita consumption of meat and dairy decreased from 668 kg/yr to 583 kg/yr while its per capita consumption of food crops increased from 687 kg/yr to 744 kg/yr. We find that the GHG emissions, cropland and grassland use associated Denmark’s food consumption declined by 30% (4.45 Mt CO2e) and 16% (355 kha), 27% (62 kha) respectively between 1995 and 2014. In the same period, the blue water use related to Danish food consumption was fairly stable, increasing by a negligible 0.36% (1 Mm3). From 1995 to 2014, the GHG emissions, croplands and grasslands displaced to the rest of the world by Danish consumption of imported foods decreased by only 3% (0.17 Mt CO2e), 5% (50 kha) and 1% (2 kha) respectively. In contrast, the blue water embodied in Denmark’s food imports increased by 4% (12 Mm^3). However, the share of displaced impacts to regions overseas by Danish food consumption in Denmark’s total CB impacts increased for GHG emissions (37% to 51%), land (45% to 51%) and blue water use (81% to 84%). Between 1995 and 2014, the environmental pressures displaced to Denmark by food consumption abroad food increased for GHG emissions (+0.72 Mt CO2e), land use (+245 kha) and water use (+18 Mm3). The global feed cropland footprint for livestock products consumed in Denmark decreased by 24% (271 kha) from 2000 to 2013, with the most significant reductions for pork (-41% or 156 kha), beef (-19% or 35 kha) and milk (-16% or 77 kha). At subnational level, the Capital region of Denmark accounted for 41% (28.26 Mt CO2e) and 31% (27.19 Mt CO2e) of Denmark national production-and-consumption based GHG emissions. Also, Denmark’s biggest cities (i.e. Copenhagen, Aarhus, Aalborg and Odense) accounted for 21% (18.21 Mt CO2e) and 22% (2.51Mt CO2e) of Denmark’s global total and food-related GHG emissions respectively in 2011.
In summary, the findings of the project suggest that reasonable to optimal reductions in household consumption of meat and dairy in Denmark could potentially reduce the global environmental pressures associated with Danish food consumption. With regards to local climate policies in Denmark, the Capital region of Denmark, as well as Denmark’s richest and most populous municipalities presents great opportunities for significantly lowering Denmark’s GHG emissions. To mitigate Denmark’s food trade environmental impacts, we recommend, (i) concerted efforts by principal public and private stakeholders in the Danish food industry to transfer Danish expertise, and innovative food technologies to the countries of origin for its most pollution-and-resource intensive food imports, (ii) a redesign of Denmark’s food system to increase local food supply self-sufficiency in a sustainable manner (iii) dietary shifts towards less or no meat and dairy products abroad. We hope that the finding of this project will contribute to climate and environmental policymaking and changes in consumer dietary choices in Denmark necessary for meeting the climate neutrality goal set for 2050.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherAarhus Universitet
Number of pages286
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Udgivelsesår 2020

Note re. dissertation

PhD defence Friday, 29 January 2021

    Research areas

  • Multi-Regional Input-Output Model, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), International trade, Food, Environmental footprints, Consumption-based accounting, Environmental policy, Local Climate Policy

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