Corporates must show their commitment to climate

COP summits are like Groundhog Day but that isn’t an excuse for businesses to bury their heads in the sand, says David Burrows. 

Following last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, I warned that ignoring food in a summit to tackle climate change is a bit like ignoring traffic lights when you are driving – it will only end in disaster. And yet that is what COP after COP has done. Until COP27. 

Finally, here was a COP with a day dedicated to agriculture. The backdrop of a global food crisis certainly helped put the sector in the spotlight: “Adapt or starve” was the message from the UN. The alarm bells are ringing louder than ever, but is anyone reacting to them? 

Efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases were largely missing from the discussions in Egypt. That’s a staggering oversight given the position we’re in and the carbon savings the food sector has to find by 2030. 

Indeed, I spent last autumn checking out where food companies are on carbon and – spoiler alert – the results are not pretty. On scopes 1 and 2 they’re managing quite well (many websites show lovely graphs of these emissions falling) but these are less than 10% of total emissions. 

On scope 3 they’re totally stuck. In fact, emissions are rising. Across 10 of the world’s largest food manufacturers (reported) scope 3 emissions were up 7% in the latest reporting year. Only two (Nestlé and Danone) managed to reduce their indirect emissions. Seven presented increases. The other (Tyson) hasn’t yet reported on scope 3 at all (which is just bonkers for a company that talks about becoming “the most sustainable and transparent protein company in the world”). 

To first understand and then to transform our food systems transparency is crucial. And yet in the flurry of net-zero promises made in the past 12 months or so many corporates forgot to include a total emissions figure, which can be a devil of a detail to find. It took me a whole morning to find McDonald’s’ total following its net-zero pledge last year. 

Brands that made brave and bold commitments 12 months ago are, I fear, going shy on sustainability now the scale of the challenge is being laid bare in such statistics. Greenhushing is on the rise. COP27 is out of the way and for companies cost of living trumps climate as the current crisis. Budgets are being tightened and sustainability is being squeezed out. This is bad news. The laggards will drift and the pioneers will struggle to collaborate. 

‘Do we have to do net-zero now?’ is a question echoing around businesses and boardrooms. No you don’t. But it’s lunacy to think food businesses can simply adapt to warming of 2 degrees or more, which is where we are heading if we don’t start eating into scope 3 emissions by 2030. 

One UK supermarket chain has a scope 3 baseline of 26.7MtCO2e and a 30% reduction in scope 3 by 2030 (aligned with 2 degrees) means a target of 18.8MtCO2; reach for 50% (aligned with 1.5 degrees) and it has to cut another 5.5MtCO2e. The supermarket has managed to cut 0.2MtCO2e in scopes 1 and 2 in the past year. 

I am not looking to single out any individual business as the bad apple; purely this is as an example of where most food companies are on really reducing carbon emissions – which is nowhere. Patience is needed for everything from regenerative agriculture to reusable packaging to scale and for consumption patterns to shift, but the pace needs to pick up, especially in the absence of any decent policies. 

If world leaders shrugged off phasing out fossil fuels as a solution to climate change then there is no hope they will tackle food in any meaningful sense. Indeed, what few have noted is that those food security alarm bells at COP27 have actually been ringing for some time. “[...] there can be no food security without climate security,” said former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon in November 2009. COP summits are like Groundhog Day but that isn’t an excuse for businesses to bury their heads in the sand. 

This comment was originally included in Veriscope, a report produced by Veris Strategies on the implications of COP27 on the food industry and to encourage collaboration on climate action across the food sector. The full report is available here.

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