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CO2 footprints in the food chain

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CO2 footprints in the food chain

Our current agri-food system holds responsible to a large extent for exceeding several planetary boundaries. A shift to more sustainable diets is therefore urgently needed. In the project, we investigate how product labelling should be methodically implemented in order to support this change.

Background and Objective

Globally, there is growing awareness of our food system’s impact not only on the climate system but on the earth system as a whole, as well as on human health. Shifting towards diets that keep our food system within planetary boundaries and that ensure human health at the same time is thus urgently needed. A concept for how such a planetary health diet could look like has been presented by the EAT–Lancet Commission in 2019.

The challenge now is to put the existing knowledge about more sustainable diets into action and to bring about real change. The sustainability labelling of food can be one of the available instruments that can also help make the environmental impact of food visible to consumers.

Several studies in recent years show that more and more consumers are paying attention to climate-friendly nutrition, even if it remains largely unclear how this 'climate-friendliness' is defined in detail. According to these studies, many consumers (would) appreciate a label on food items which helps them make more sustainable or climate friendly purchase decisions.

In line with these trends in consumer behaviour, food industry has, in recent years, increasingly developed climate and sustainability-related labelling activities, in which food items are being tagged with (different) ‘climate / eco labels’. Such labels either indicate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in absolute values, or they state the reduction in emissions compared to a comparable product or a certain point in time in relative figures. Compensation labels often use a scale to assess the extent to which a food product negatively impacts our climate. An important problem with these approaches is that they make use of different sources and data to calculate the carbon (in kg CO2 equivalents) or environmental footprint of individual products These sources are usually (1) not directly traceable and (2) often cannot be verified comparatively and independently.

Within the KlimaLabel project we aim to develop an improved overview of the data available on the climate-friendliness and sustainability of food, as well as a basis for better evaluation of this database and the methods for determining carbon / environmental footprints. Finally, recommendations will be drawn up on how data and methodological implementation can be improved so that a climate label can be developed that makes an effective contribution to climate and environmental protection.

Target Group

Project contents and results are relevant for both researchers and practitioners and will support future policy advice. In addition, the project theme is of high societal relevance and interest, which will be met through appropriate science communication.


The analyses of the footprints of the German agri-food system planned in this project are calculated both on the basis of life cycle assessments (LCA) of individual products and systematically and in time series on the basis of input-output analyses for the agricultural sector and the downstream sector of the food industry, in accordance with the methods of environmental economic accounting.

Our Research Questions

  • Is the currently available database on the carbon footprint of food in Germany sufficient for developing a climate label that enables consumers to implement more sustainable diets in the short to medium term?
  • Is it possible to work towards a medium to long-term reduction in emissions at all stages of the value chain by calculating (and declaring) the origin of the respective emission shares in detail, based on currently available data?
  • What kind of data and data collection methodology would be necessary to develop effective labelling? How would these be best generated and managed?
  • Which products or product groups, stages in the value chain and sustainability variables (CO2 and others) require particular action?

Preliminary Results

The aim of the project is to develop recommendations on how reliable data bases and methods for determining the carbon / environmental footprint of food in Germany can be developed. The approach to be developed should (1) be time-series sensitive, as the values change over time due to new technologies and processes, (2) be able to depict different production methods, e.g. conventional and organic farming, (3) be scenario sensitive in order to be able to estimate and evaluate future developments, and (4) be transparently documented and publicly accessible.


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