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Crunch time (again) at COP

Politicians and businesses gather in the desert for COP28 this week, but is the ambition to keep global warming/heating/boiling/burning below 1.5°C still alive? David Burrows reports.

In Glasgow, at COP26, the ambition/imperative was “kept alive”. In Egypt, the “pulse was weak” come the end of COP27. So now we head into COP28, preparing for the worst.

It has become harder to muster any enthusiasm for these summits, but they may well remain the best hope for collaboration on climate change at global level. 

Simon Sharpe, the former climate advisor to the British government who has written a book about decarbonisation (Five times faster), reckons that rather than having agreement from everyone, it could pay to focus on what he calls the “positive-sum game”. Saudi Arabia mightn’t support the transition to electric vehicles, for example, but ensuring the US, China and the EU do can “bring the entire global automobile industry with them”, he told New Scientists recently.

It’s an interesting approach. Choose the big, forward-thinking fish and hope they swim fast enough to drag everyone else along. Could it work for businesses and food systems too, though?

Food at least now has a look in at these climate summits. There is a day dedicated to the sector (as well as a number of other events over the course of the conference – from reducing methane and reimagining school meals to the ‘sustainable’ food on offer at COP). Whether the significant negotiations go beyond supply-side changes and openly consider food systems will be worth watching closely in Dubai. (The recent plastics treaty talks stalled as oil producing countries and companies ensured attention was on waste managed rather than reducing consumption and production).

Given the location of COP28, and that the presidency is held by the UAE, much will be made of the energy transition and the need (or not, according to some) to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It’ll be testy, as always. But the debates and lobbying around food could be testier still. “Food systems transformation is perhaps inherently more complex and more politicised even than the energy agenda,” wrote Chatham House research director Tim Benton earlier this month. 

“Crucially,” he added, “there must be recognition – if not from all countries, but from some – that food systems transformation is not only a matter of delivering on climate goals, but also on ensuring food security, better global health and protecting biodiversity.” That sounds like the positive-sum game that Sharpe talks of; but who are the allies that will bravely talk of the need to reduce consumption of meat and dairy products, for example?

“There’s hesitation from pretty much all governments around meddling with diets, as we see here in the UK,” says Oliver Camp, And concerns about the response from food businesses and farmers if there are real or perceived threats to them, senior associate at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Maybe it doesn’t require as much guts as governments think. Derric Pennington, a sustainability scientist at the University of Minnesota, US, has been looking through ESG disclosures of food companies and the key risk they cite – the number one risk of climate change, of deforestation, of water scarcity and impairments to their company – is future legal regulations and taxes. “I say we make that risk a global reality,” he says. Now that would be an astounding result.

Rising emissions

More likely is that it will be left to businesses to step into that void. Some catering companies already are – in deeds if not in words – as they shift menus towards plant-based and less but better meat options; but the consumer-facing foodservice chains and brands tend to talk a lot and do very little. 

The Food Foundation says to look out for three things within any food company net-zero commitment: are they removing deforestation and land-use conversion from businesses and supply chains; are they cutting food waste across their supply chain and not just in their own operations; and are they shifting sales away from animal-based foods and towards plant-based foods?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, because a fair number of companies – including some very, very big ones – have yet to even publish their scope 3 emissions (despite committing to net-zero).

For two years now we have had businesses lining up to say how much they want to change, and making commitments; yet they have actually managed very little in terms of emissions reductions. Consider the rising emissions of companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks and PepsiCo for example. Many food companies remain happy to publicise their net-zero commitment or reductions in scopes 1 and 2 emissions, while neglecting scope 3 (where upwards of 80% or 90% of emissions lie for a typical food business).

Writing for Footprint on Friday this week, Bob Gordon, director at the Zero Carbon Forum, explains how the collaboration has removed over 0.5MtCO2e from its collective footprint (or about 8%). That is great news, he says, “but in truth, it’s the easy stuff”. This is the honesty we need. It is the honesty consumers, investors and policymakers need. And yet the latest trend is greenhushing, where companies decide to go silent on sustainability.

Will they do so at COP28? The level of noise compared to COP26, where sustainability chiefs came away licking their lips at the public commitments their bosses had made, will be interesting to measure. At a recent business forum run by the Food Ethics Council the challenge facing food businesses was clear: how do they navigate the tension between saying nothing and saying things they shouldn’t say? There should be a level of comfort in the collective challenge here. “From Sodexo’s recent work with suppliers and clients, we know that close collaboration is not just desirable; it’s the only chance we have of achieving our net zero goals,” says Sodexo UK&I director of sustainability Claire Atkins Morris.

Hard truths

At this COP I am going to ignore grand statements, long-term targets and open letters signed by businesses that challenge governments to regulate. These are all important to a point, but we are past that point aren’t we? We know that food companies, combined, are not doing enough. They need to admit that so they can start working better together on what needs to change.