How can the salmon farming industry reduce its carbon footprint?

How can the salmon industry reduce its carbon footprint? Photo: Adobe Stock
How can the salmon industry reduce its carbon footprint? Photo: Adobe Stock

Sustainability is not just a buzzword in the salmon aquaculture industry, but has become a key area of strategic concern, as many producers aim to cut their carbon emissions to net zero. 

Norwegian research organization SINTEF has recently concluded a research project calculating the climate footprint of the salmon farming industry over its full life cycle, from production and sourcing of salmon feed to the delivery of end products to various markets around the world. 

Introducing the report, SINTEF said, "By analysing emission sources and factors, we not only gain understanding of what the total footprint is and what the largest contributors to it are, but also what targeted actions can best reduce them in order to make the aquaculture industry more sustainable."

Researchers based their calculations on fresh and frozen whole salmon and salmon filets shipped to markets in Europe, the US and Asia, either by road, sea or air. Results show emission values ranging between 4.8 and 28 kg of carbon emissions per kilogram of edible salmon on the market. 

Feed the biggest source of "farm gate" emissions, but transport emits most CO2 

The study found that salmon feed production represents 75% of the industry's total "farm gate" climate footprint, CO2 emissions during cultivation before a product reaches factory, processing, transportation, or distribution stages in the value chain. The authors suggest possible measures to combat this include using European and US soy instead of soy from Asia and South America, or switching to feed based on other sources such as broad beans, peas and rapeseed oil.

However, transport remains the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions, with air freight described by the researchers as "an emission hotspot". For example, airfreighted products to Asia or the USA have a carbon footprint in the range of 16-28 kg CO2 per kilo of edible product delivered to the wholesaler, with airfreight accounting for 68-82% of emissions. Products shipped by road or sea, meanwhile, emit 5-6 kg of CO2 per kilo.

A possible solution, the researchers suggest, is shifting to other means of transport. However, due to the limited shelf-life of fresh products, companies may need to consider switching to frozen products, to allow for slower transportation with lower emissions. Another option suggested in the report is to ship products directly, including processing at sea.

Other stages in the value chain were found to produce far lower emissions, with slaughtering and processing at less than 2% of the total carbon footprint for all products, and packaging between 1 and 5%.

Comparing emissions year on year, the researchers found overall emissions had reduced by around 10% since 2017. In part this change was due to a shift in the industry from using soy protein to more climate-friendly crops for feed production. 

The SINTEF report suggests these changes "[show] that the industry is continuously working towards making choices with a lower carbon footprint." However, salmon aquaculture is still far from reaching net zero emissions.

"From the analyses undertaken, there seem to be plenty of opportunities for the industry to work on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of farmed salmon, even without the need for major investments," the report suggests. "Even if only implementing current 'best practice' in terms of eFCR, energy source of feed barge, energy efficiency in juvenile production and by-product utilization, the greenhouse gas emissions of farmgate salmon would be 24% lower than the average in 2021."

Top salmon producers are eager to highlight climate action 

Most producers are keen to highlight their efforts to reduce their operations' carbon footprint, reporting their performance in sustainability and climate change mitigation alongside their quarterly financial and harvest results.  

Norwegian salmon farming giants Mowi and Grieg Seafood are no exception. In their recent end-of-year statements, both companies dedicated time to highlight their efforts regarding climate change and sustainability. Mowi and Grieg respectively rank first and second in the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index for 2022, and both companies have flagship initiatives in place for increasing environmental sustainability in their businesses. 

Mowi announced it had cut direct CO2 emissions by by 9% in 2022, and by 33% since 2019, and said it had avoided emitting 2 million tonnes of CO2 during 2022. The company's target is to reduce its total emissions by 35% by 2030. 

"Salmon is definitely the right side of sustainability," said Mowi CFO Kristian Ellingsen, during a press briefing to announce the company's Q4 results for 2022. "We have a good starting point with salmon being such an efficient protein, but these results don't come by themselves," he added, commenting that the salmon producer has linked sustainability goals with their finance model, through moves such as Mowi's green bond framework. 

Meanwhile, Grieg Seafood, which is also targeting 35% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050, reported in its Q4 release that it had received a score of A- from CDP for transparency and actions related to climate change. 

Climate transparency is, however, also in the interests of business. As highlighted in Grieg's risk analysis published in 2021, consumer pressure is an additional driver for companies to take action on greenhouse emissions, as consumers increasingly demand climate-certified fish.  

About Sintef 

Headquartered in Trondheim, Norway, SINTEF is an independent research organization founded in 1950 that conducts contract research and development projects. One of Europe's largest independent research organisations, every year it carries out several thousand projects for customers large and small.

The research project, initiated and financed by the Norwegian Seafood Research Fund (FHF), was carried out by SINTEF in collaboration with Asplan Viak and RISE Research Institutes of Sweden from December 2021 to December 2022.

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