December 1, 2022

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Hungry in Glasgow? The COP26 menu comes carbon counted

GLASGOW, Scotland — The COP26 climate conference has cooked up its own breed of food critics. Forget the taste. It’s all about the carbon footprint.

And the menu in Glasgow is getting skewered for the apparent carbon trail some dishes have left behind.

How do people know? It’s right there where you order. Listed next to choices of meat, dairy and fish — and vegetarian and vegan options — is the carbon footprint figure of each meal.

Want a Scottish beef burger? It’s unclear what that will set you back calorie-wise. And who’s to say if you’ll get darting glares from vegans dining nearby. But the burger had been calculated to have a 3.9kg Co2e rating (more on the numbers in a second). That’s much higher than, say, the Scottish beetroot and broccoli salad (0.2) or braised turkey meatball pasta (0.9). The “Haggis, Neeps & Tatties” — ‘neeps’ and ‘tatties’ are ‘turnips’ and ‘potatoes’ and haggis is, well, a lot of things — which gets a rating of 3.4.

The campaign group Animal Rebellion said that serving meat and dairy products at a climate summit was tantamount to “serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference.”

Some of the delegates poring over menus right before suppertime on a recent day were alarmed by the choices.

“I was shocked when I came here and saw all these,” said Peter Odrich, 20, a delegate from Germany, who was referring to the meat options. He was eyeballing a menu at the “fish and chips” stand, and opted for the tempura broccoli, the only vegetarian option on that particular menu, which also had the lowest carbon footprint.

To calculate each meal’s carbon footprint, the food suppliers at the climate summit partnered with Swedish startup Klimato, which helps restaurants calculate and communicate climate impacts on their food.

The carbon footprint of a food product takes into account greenhouse gas emissions from every stage of the food production process — from cultivation and farming, to processing and transportation, Klimato states. The group assesses emissions related to each stage of the food product’s “life cycle,” and takes into account country and local market data to then spit out a final emissions total.

“Low” carbon footprint foods emit 0.1 to 0.5 carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram. “High” carbon footprint foods exceed 1.6 kg CO2e. The average meal Britain is “high.”

Food is a big deal in the global effort to tackle climate change. The food industry accounts for a whopping third of global emissions, according to the United Nations.

More about U.N. climate summit in Glasgow

Some of the delegates pouring over the menus wondered if the inclusion of Scottish beef burgers was — deliberately or not — a cunning move by the British organizers to showcase how different dishes have a different impact.

“I can’t quite tell if they are making a point by doing that,” Rohan Mehar, 38, who works for the University of Tokyo. “There might be a long game I’m not aware of. Or, have they really thought this through?”

“Does it make people think when they see these figures? Is the audience here more affected by having a beef burger on the menu that is clearly worse than plant-based options,” he added. “That might make them change their minds based on seeing those things.”

Did it change his mind? As a vegan, he was always going to go for the plant-based option anyway.

Still, he did have questions about the menu he was reading that showed that haddock fish cakes (1.0) had a seemingly similar rating than tempura broccoli (0.8).

“Don’t you need, uh, maritime equipment to get the fish?” he asked. “I was expecting it to be higher.”

COP26’s catering and hospitality partner, Levy UK + Ireland, says that their menus are low carbon, using in-season and mostly local produce — 95 percent is sourced in Britain — with many suppliers within 100 miles of Glasgow. Forty percent of the dishes are fully plant-based, almost 60 percent vegetarian, and the majority fall into the “low” carbon output level, organizers said.

Anna Maria Kleymeyer, a climate lawyer who has been to every COP since 2006, said that there are far more vegetarian options on the menu than ever before, and she couldn’t remember organizers ever before publicizing the carbon content of the food.

She was sitting at a pavilion booth called “The Methane Moment” that had a number of statistics on panel boards, including this humdinger one next to a picture of a herd of cattle: “Methane from livestock accounts for nearly 30 percent of global methane pollution.”

She said her personal view was that “any environmental organization or group when hosting a meeting should make food 100 percent plant-based, walk the walk. Let people have choice in their private life but if you’re going to host a meeting and the options exist, do it,” she said.

Others poring over the menus were skeptical what they saw.

Inigo Gurruchaga, 65, a London correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Correo, took a break from filing dispatches to mull over options for dinner. He was tempted by the vegetarian haggis, but since that stall was closed, he was investigating the “pizza and pasta” stall.

“Do we have the real number to get at braised turkey meatballs?” he said. “How do they make that calculation? Do you measure the growing up of the turkey? And the ingredients of the balls?”

He said that there was only one number on the menu — and indeed at the whole conference — that he had confidence in.

Pointing at a menu, he said, “The price is the only number I believe.”