Friday Digest: lots of talk but not enough walk?

The COP15 biodiversity summit got underway on Wednesday (7th December) in Montreal, Canada. Elizabeth Mrema, the UN biodiversity’s head, has for months been pitching the conference – the latest in a long series of talks that started in 1994 – as “a Paris moment for biodiversity” (in reference to the deal on climate change struck in Paris in 2015). The biodiversity targets are only set every decade, and the 2010 ones were missed “on every count”, noted The Guardian.

Better luck this time? Maybe not. New Scientist reported this week that negotiators are at risk of setting unrealistic targets that threaten to undermine global conservation action. Ambitions to halt and reverse biodiversity loss are possible by 2050 but not by 2030 (as in COP15 proposals), some experts suggested. “It sounds great, we want to do it… but I think the inertia in the system is such that it is just not possible,” explained David Obura from Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO), a non-profit organisation in Mombasa, Kenya. Of course, targets stretching way into the distance allows cans to be kicked (and WWF’s recent living planet report shows why that simply cannot happen). 

Here in the UK, the government is struggling to even meet deadlines to set some targets, let alone get on with achieving them. Defra has yet to publish its overarching water, nature, air and waste targets, despite being legally obliged to do so by the end of October. In the week COP15 kicked off “it’s not a good look”, noted ENDSdeputy editor Rachel Salvidge.

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has been getting it in the neck of late for what MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee see as a “culture of delay” at the department. She told MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee this week that the changes to government haven’t helped but added: “I think we look for perfection in some of the stuff that we are trying to do.” Some of it is also complex, she explained, citing extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging as an example.

EPR, together with bans on single-use plastic, a deposit return scheme, and a waste prevention programme are among the policies Defra continues to dither over. But that didn’t prevent the department claiming (again) on its blog that the UK government “continues to be at the forefront of tackling global plastic pollution” by … banning plastics straws. 

Defra was talking plastic following the first intergovernmental committee meeting on the global plastics treaty (which was neatly sandwiched between COP27 and COP15). There were “high and low moments”, according to campaign group Break Free From Plastic. With two years to go the battle lines are already being drawn. Big oil and gas-producing countries, like the US and Saudi Arabia, see plastic as their plan B and want a “bottom up deal” focused on recycling, noted Climate Home NewsHowever, another coalition covering almost a quarter of UN member states (including the UK) wants restraints put on plastic consumption and production. A lot may well rest on the voting system used to finalise any deal.

Also seeking to curb consumption of plastic is the European Commission, which has published its proposals to tackle packaging waste. Targets for reusable packaging, bans on offering single-use items for those dining in and limits on the uses of compostable packaging are all in the mix. 360° Foodservice, which represents the foodservice packaging sector, said this was all going “too far too fast” (more to come on that front in Monday’s Footprint).

Defra can rarely be accused of such things, with its delayed agricultural policies angering pretty much everyone. Coffey told the Efra committee this week that she will be “putting our shoulder to the plough”.

The post-Brexit farm subsidy regime – the environmental land management scheme which will reward farmers for environmental work – is going ahead following a controversial review (though the BBC reported that one of the schemes, which would pay farmers for creating space for nature, is being adjusted). The bad news is that there will be no further details this side of Christmas. James Robinson, vice chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said biodiversity is under threat and farmers need clarity.

The NFU has just warned that the government faces a “stark choice”: back British food production in order to secure a home-grown supply of sustainable food or risk seeing more empty shelves in the nation’s supermarkets. 

Sustain published new research showing UK farmers can receive less than 1% of the profit from the food they sell with supermarkets, retailers and processors taking a far healthier chunk of the pie. Despite these profits, supermarkets and major food companies are not paying their staff a fair wage, according to the latest Responsibility100 index, produced by Tortoise Media. The index assesses whether the FTSE100 companies are walking the talk on key social, environmental and ethical issues. Mostly, they’re not (look out for Wednesday’s Footprint bulletin for more on that). 

During her Efra inquisition Coffey ruled out stepping in to help consumers and farmers out during the current cost of living and producing crises; instead she praised the competitive supermarket environment. All around her emergency meetings were in full swing as the supply chain cracks continued to show – shortages of eggs have made the headlines but there are problems afoot with dairy, fruit and veg. “I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises,” said NFU president Minette Batters.

Rest assured that, come 2023, MPs will spend more time talking about food, farming, the environment and rural communities. Farmers Weekly reported that Defra oral parliamentary questions will be extended to a full hour from January 12th. Sorted.

Stat of the week. Greggs opened its 30th Outlet shop. The shops support socially deprived areas and redistribute unsold food items at a reduced price. The target is to open 50 by 2025.

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