NET-ZERO NOTEBOOK: Cats, coalduggery and the climate

COP26 didn’t quite flop, but a failure to consider food system emissions has left it up to businesses to act. David Burrows reports. 

“[…] it’s a Schrödinger’s cat situation in that [1.5°C] is dead and alive for now – and we’ll only know which it really is when we measure emissions in the coming years,” said Imperial College’s Friederike Otto in her assessment of this month’s COP26 talks.

If we are resorting to thought experiments in quantum mechanics to explain whether the Glasgow summit was a flop or not, then it is probably best to move on. Which is what we will do.

But briefly, our summary is that there was something useful on deforestation and methane, something less useful on fossil fuels and nothing useful at all on consumption. Admittedly, we gave up halfway through the two-week summit when signatories to agreements started reaching for the Tippex. 

CEOs who called for more red tape to drive their green ambitions would have left Scotland disappointed. Some 75 representatives from 32 food and drink companies and/or trade associations attended the summit, according to an analysis by Anthony So at the Food Research Collaboration. But were they lobbying for food system emissions to be on the table or to remain under it?

Much now rests on whether industry can deliver the emissions cuts required in the next decade (50%) to stay on track to net zero and limit heating to 1.5°C. 

Some might say there isn’t a Schrödinger’s cat in hell’s chance of that happening. “The mistrust is so deep that each new initiative gets written off by activists as soon as it’s announced,” wrote Bill McKibben in The New Yorker of alliances on net-zero forged between large financial institutions.

Soy far soy bad

The food sector has relied heavily on voluntary agreements to deliver sustainability ambitions in the past – with little success. There was the missed Consumer Goods Forum target to end deforestation by 2020, plus a catalogue of failures to address issues in the palm oil and soya supply chains. So can the world trust corporates to protect the planet when world leaders won’t? 

McDonald’s UK, KFC UK and Nando’s were among the brands that signed up to a new UK soy manifesto this month – they have committed to buying only soya that has been grown without deforestation or removal of native vegetation by 2025. “We’ve got to address deforestation. It’s our responsibility to manage our supply chain [but] the collective action of the entire food industry is needed,” said Paula MacKenzie, KFC’s managing director in the UK and Ireland. 

Critics are right to be cautious about these cosy corporate clubs but net-zero is creating a collaborative edge within the food industry. This is welcome. Indeed, there is even some frustration that more companies haven’t joined initiatives like the Zero Carbon Forum. That isn’t the only show in town of course and some foodservice companies told us they are loath to drop the work they are doing with others, like Wrap, and start over again.

The same issue faces ecolabels. These little stickers are attracting huge amounts of attention but there is a land grab going on with new schemes popping up, each using different data and designs and threatening to confuse consumers rather than convince them to dine or drink sustainably. 

Mind the gap

study just published by Globescan, and supported by the likes of Ikea and PepsiCo, showed an aspiration-action gap “lingers” – 47% of global consumers want to made environmentally friendly choices but only 23% have managed to do so. A huge piece of research by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, involving 11,000 consumers in 13 markets and in-depth interviews with experts from businesses including Yo!BritvicTesco and Restaurant Brands International (RBI), concluded that the brands helping consumers to be more sustainable will “win”. 

Speaking of RBI, which owns Burger King – it has just set science-based targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. "We've done the hard work to determine where we stand, where we can make the most meaningful impact, and the actions we need to take to move the needle,” says chief executive officer José E. Cil.

The big firms obviously have more cash to chuck at carbon counting than smaller firms. Indeed, frameworks like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF) and the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) are all geared towards large corporates. Just 66 of the 847 companies to have aligned their climate mitigation targets with 1.5°C and net-zero emissions by 2050 are SMEs, according to SBTi. 

SBTi has published a new net-zero standard: those adopting it will be required to set both near- and long-term science-based targets across all scopes. For companies involved in the agriculture sector this means deep decarbonisation of 80% with the remaining 20% “neutralised through carbon removals”. 

That is a big ask. In its roadmap to decarbonisation, the Zero Carbon Forum has estimated the need for a particular reliance on scope 3 offsets, averaging 22% of the total scope 3 footprint in pubs, 23% in quick service restaurants, 30% in hotels, 31% in restaurants and 40% in breweries.

All eyes on scope 3

Tackling scope 3 emissions will be essential for any food business hoping to play its part in keeping temperatures cool. “The one thing that continually needs to be reminded and spoken about within the hospitality sector is that dealing with your scope one and two emissions is not nearly enough,” says Juliane Caillouette Noble, managing director at the Sustainable Restaurant Association. All the energy saving and green energy targets are great starting points, she suggests, but remain “dancing around the edges unless we start to deal with the supply chain”.

Good to see, then, recent commitments by CompassSodexo and Whitbread spanning all three scopes. Compass’s UK and Ireland arm has a footprint of some 1.2 million tonnes of CO2e (90% of which are scope 3). It’s aiming for a reduction in carbon emissions of at least 55% by 2025 and at least 65% across its operations and value chain by 2030 from a 2019 baseline. “We have to make sure if we're going to hit the targets, which we're very committed to doing, that the whole supply chain comes on the same journey with us,” Carolyn Ball, director for delivery of net-zero at the caterer, told Footprint earlier this month.

Ambitions for the group globally are more cautious. It’s the same at McDonald’s: the UK and Ireland business is heading for net-zero by 2040 while the global group goes for 2050. “Imagine the impact if around 1,400 restaurants, 130,000 crew, over 23,000 British and Irish farmers and four million daily customers change a little,” the ‘Plan for change’ website reads. Imagine if McDonald’s also did interviews to explain its plans beyond designing fancy websites and publishing press releases… 


Which brings us back to Boris Johnson’s speech and UK leadership. COP26 “succeeded in doing something no UN climate conference has ever done before” he boasted. By using it to push Irn Bru? Well, that and “uniting the world in calling time on coal”. Hmmm, not quite. “Phase down” was the term agreed after much debate and ‘coalduggery’ to remove “phase out” from the document. 

The old dog Johnson was up to his usual tricks, it seems, spinning and greenwashing. “[…] again and again the task of our negotiators was made easier by the fact that the UK wasn’t asking anyone to do anything we’re not doing ourselves.” Here he mentioned climate finance, the legally-binding commitment on net-zero and the end of combustion engines.

What he didn’t mention was the latest report on the Greening Government Commitments. Published, but not publicised, just prior to the talks (and six months late), this showed central government departments have together managed to halve greenhouse gas emissions since 2009/10. Three departments missed their targets, though. Nine of the 22 departments also missed their targets to reduce domestic flights; in six there was an increase in flights. Only 12 out of 22 departments reported against all four of the transparency commitments.

New targets for 2021 to 2025 were also published. Most of these are now aggregate central government targets rather than bespoke minimum performance targets for individual departments. Ministers at Defra will sleep easier as a result – the environment department recycles less waste than the average UK household (40% versus 46%) and sends more waste to landfill than any other department (20%). COP26, it seems, proved a good time to bury some bad news.

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