Friday Digest: food policies (and food) are hard to come by at COP27

The cost of living crisis has us all digging around the back of the sofa for some spare change. The joy is mostly in not knowing what you’ll find. From a few quid and some dried out Cheerios to jewellery and long-forgotten toys and EU laws.

Ministers, in conjunction with the National Archives, discovered 1,400 pieces of legislation when they went-a-hunting for all the bits of retained EU laws they will have to repeal or review by the end of 2023 under the EU law (revocation and reform) bill. That means instead of 2,400 laws to look at there are now 3,800, according to the Financial Times. This will leave Defra officials in a sweat: their tally was already at 570 but this is likely a “serious underestimate”, said Green Alliance, a think tank.

That story allowed us not to kick off with news from COP27, which is slightly overwhelming and mostly depressing. So, let’s first consider some work WWF has done with major supermarkets on net-zero. This showed major chains are making their packaging more recyclable, sourcing more sustainable palm oil and tackling their scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions. However, scope 3 emissions (which represent 97% of the footprint across the nine retailers involved) increased by 5%. That’s millions of tonnes more GHGs, a fact that was side-stepped in the accompanying press release. 

The report’s billing as “most comprehensive ever picture of the food retail sector’s environmental footprint” may also be stretching it: no breakdown of emissions from those involved was provided despite WWF making noises about transprency (for those seeking a better idea of grocery chain emissions, check out this table).

WWF’s report shows just how far supermarkets need to go in just about every measure to meet a target to halve the sector’s environmental impact by 2030. There are large gaps in data. So, is it another week and another voluntary initiative promising much but (largely) failing to deliver? Supermarkets need to step up. However, as sustainability consultant and former M&S Plan A lead Mike Barry pointed out, relying on voluntary schemes for a whole new food system (and that’s what we need) is “really hard”. “We need a proper national food strategy and aligned policy, tax, subsidy and consumer engagement to make it real,” he said.

It’s a little early for Christmas wishes. Tomorrow (Saturday) brings agriculture day at COP27 (that’s the climate talks going on in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt). Today (Friday) we should get a better idea of how countries are doing on the methane pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow. For the UK the answer is, not much.

This has been billed as the “implementation” COP. We’ve been wondering how to sum things up from the first few days and have come up with the following: (almost) everyone admits they need to do more but no one really wants to do more. Quite a few are keen to do less.

Greenwashing around net-zero remains rife, according to a report by an expert group convened by UN secretary-general. The criteria for net-zero commitments can have loopholes wide enough to “drive a diesel truck through”, said António Guterres, as he called for companies to follow the group’s 10 practical recommendations. These include interim targets at five-year intervals starting in 2025, with annual emissions reporting including scope 3 emissions, and separate targets for carbon dioxide and methane. All good stuff, but as law firm DWF noted, the expert group is “influential, but lacks enforcement powers”.

Brewdog should take note: the brewer found itself in the doghouse (yet again) this week after it launched an advertising campaign as the ‘proud anti-sponsor of the World Cup’ but then had to explain why it’s still selling its beers in Qatar, the country which is hosting the competition. “Apple sells iPhones in Qatar – that doesn’t mean it endorses human rights abuses. Neither do we,” a spokesperson told Just-Drinks.

From drinks at the footie we turn back to the fare at those climate talks. Critics suggest there is far too much traditional meat and dairy on the menus, with the catering guide missing an opportunity to pitch climate-friendly meals that lean towards more plants and less (but better) meat. There was some innovative thinking on show, though. At COP26 in Glasgow there was carbon labelling on the meals (some of it incorrect), while in Egypt delegates can grab some cultivated chicken made by Eat Just. 

What’s consumed at these COP events is now more closely watched. If only delegates had as much interest in discussing the role of dietary changes needed to achieve net-zero. “As you follow the news, bear this question in mind: has COP27 taken on-board the science about climate change and diet – or is dietary change the elephant in the room? Find the answer by looking for any policy solutions aimed at reducing meat and dairy consumption. Do you see any?” wrote Paula Feehan for the Food Research Collaboration.

Maybe their experiences this year will provide food for thought. The Guardian reported food stalls were empty leaving some delegates to resort to eating ice-creams three times a day. As one wag on social media noted, it is perhaps an “ironic twist of fate that COP27 has turned into a fully immersive experience for the delegates to give them a taste of what life will be like in the future”.

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