- According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), global obesity has tripled since 1975 with around 650 million people now classified as obese.
- The last time the Earth’s atmosphere contained this much C02 was 3 million years ago when, according to Wired, ‘sea levels were several meters higher and trees grew at the South Pole’.
- 1 in 3 people globally, suffer malnutrition.
It’s hard at first to think how these three facts are connected.
Obesity and malnutrition are almost the exact opposite of one another, and what does a rise in sea levels in Indonesia, coral bleaching in Australia or flash flooding in France have to do with people having either too much or too little to eat?
Does Obesity Contribute to Climate Change?
It’s believed that the carbon footprint of an obese person is 20% larger than that of someone smaller.
A report by a group of researchers published in the Lancet suggests that obesity, malnutrition and climate change are linked through current agricultural methods, transport and land usage.
The researchers argue, too, that the global food system is skewed towards unhealthy, unsustainable options.
The Global Citizen website breaks this down further:
Global soil quality is getting worse because of industrial agriculture; water sources are either drying up or becoming unusable; changes in temperature are leaving once thriving places now untenable for growing food or supporting life.
Globally, we’re eating more meat and dairy than ever, and it takes far more space, resources and water to rear animals than it does crops; you need 20 times the amount of land to grow beef as you do beans, for example.
In 2018, The Guardian reported on the impact of the rise in global meat consumption writing that:
‘The average amount of meat consumed per person globally has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, from around 23kg in 1961 to 43kg in 2014. The increase in average individual meat consumption means total meat production has been growing at a much faster than the rate of population growth, increasing four or five-fold since 1961.’
The researchers involved in the Lancet study are calling obesity, undernourishment and climate change a global syndemic meaning that these three threats to health are all occurring globally and simultaneously with each one contributing and affecting the other two.
Another study, published in Obesity Journal, suggests a similar connection between obesity and climate change but one that’s more obvious: that excess body weight means more food consumed which means more greenhouse gases emitted to produce, package, manufacture and transport food for consumption. The more a person eats and the more regularly this happens, the greater the demand and the more food produced.
Additionally, a person’s metabolic rate can also indicate how much carbon dioxide they will release. Obese individuals tend to release more carbon dioxide than someone with an ‘average’ body weight.
What’s worse is that food waste is a huge contributor to climate change. Globally, 40% of all food produced either fails to reach the distributor or seller or is thrown away by the end consumer. We’re producing more food than ever but almost half of it is wasted.
This is appalling when you think about it: globally, 1 in 3 people are believed to suffer from malnutrition.
There’s enough food for everyone but we’re throwing it away rather than feeding people.
Weight and Climate Change is Old News
Obesity contributing to climate change isn’t a new idea. In 2009, The Guardian wrote an article titled ‘Carbon Emissions Fueled by High Rates of Obesity,’ which stated how obese nations were contributing up to ‘1 billion extra tonnes of green house gas emissions each year’ when compared with ‘leaner’ nations. The Sun newspaper said much the same thing but with the rather crude and tasteless headline of ‘Fatties Cause Global Warming’.
What’s worrying about seeing these older articles about climate change is that things haven’t improved. It’s been a decade since they were first published and yet so many of us are still ignorant about the role that food consumption and waste plays on climate change.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that we have ‘12-years to save the planet’. And that was written in 2018, so you may need to knock off some years by the time you read this.
The world’s population in 2009 was 6.8 billion and by 2025, it’ll be 8 billion and rising.
More than 6 in 10 people in the UK are either overweight or obese.
What’s most concerning, in light of this study, is that no country in the world has found a way to reverse increasing rates of obesity.
It tells us that current methods to fight it aren’t working, and it may very well be that we need to stop treating obesity, malnutrition and climate change as separate issues, and start seeing them as three parts of the same big problem.
Is It Fair to Blame Obesity?
There’s been some concern that the study unfairly blames obese people for the climate change crisis. Campaigners argue that there is already a considerable amount of stigma around obesity.
Obesity is often oversimplified as people unwilling to exercise or to eat normally, but there’s a lot more to the illness and mental health and poverty (among many other things that can contribute to disordered eating) that must be tactfully remembered, too.
Is it fair to blame overweight people when 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of fossil fuel emissions? Is it right to criticise obese people when your avocado has more air miles that you do?
Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.
Combating Climate Change Through Exercise
Exercise is one way of helping to reduce rates of obesity in adult and child populations; it can also help individuals and businesses reduce their carbon footprint, too.