Net-zero notebook: Chicken’s carbon challenge, Greta’s goading and methane mayhem

Footprint launches a regular round-up of the latest hot stuff (and hot air) as the out of home sector grapples with climate commitments. By David Burrows.

Is KFC winging it on carbon?

KFC UK & Ireland has updated its sustainability plan. The fast food chain has reportedly committed to zero waste in food, packaging and materials by 2035 and to be net-zero carbon by 2040, or sooner. But has it chickened out of tackling scope 3 emissions? For the time being it seems so.

The initial focus will be on its direct emissions (scopes 1 and 2), for example its restaurants, with an ambitious project being led by the Zero Carbon Research Institute at the University of Liverpool. “This study focuses primarily on tackling our direct footprint head-on but we’re also investigating all angles where we can,” a KFC spokesperson told edie.net.

Details on the institute’s website suggest that scope 3 emissions will be “mapped” with the plan “ultimately” to set science-based reduction targets.

Those indirect emissions may well make up the lion’s share of the company’s emissions. At Nando’s – which last year became the “first restaurant group in Europe” with an approved science-based target – scope 3 accounts for 65% of greenhouse gas emissions. The chain has committed to reduce absolute scope 1 and 2 emissions 100% by 2030 from a 2019 base year (in line with reductions needed to keep warming to 1.5°C). The footprint of an average meal will also be cut by 50%.

Credit berating

Come November, Nando’s will also be carbon neutral. This relies on a significant investment in offsetting. The company’s reasoning for this (in an easy to follow Q&A on its website) is that it’s taking “immediate action”. “[…] offsetting has always had its controversies and will continue to do so,” wrote the company’s former head of sustainability Henry Unwin recently, as he outlined the “basic rules” businesses should follow to ensure there’s a credible scheme in place.

Carbon neutral claims are certainly fashionable. And it’s easy to get tripped up or taken to task. Just ask Leon, which was recently criticised for using “phantom credits” to reach carbon neutrality in some of its burgers. The upmarket food-to-go chain stood firm, telling The Guardian that its offsetting project helped “prevent greenhouse gas emissions, protect vital biodiversity and create sustainable livelihoods for forest communities”.

Offsetting is one of the key discussion points at meetings of the Zero Carbon Forum, according to founder Mark Chapman. Does the concept of neutralising a product or meal’s carbon impact raise awareness or maintain behaviour you want to change, he wondered in an interview with Footprint in June. “[…] that's something as society we've got to have a conversation about.”

Westbury Street Holdings (WSH) and pub company Stonegate Group joined the forum in August – to very little fanfare. Indeed, there is no sign of press releases on either site, nor on the forum’s. Arguably there is little to report publicly until the forum sets out its net-zero plan for the sector (which will include the first estimate of hospitality’s emissions footprint) but given the names now associated with the initiative expectations of its ability to drive decisive action are snowballing.

Leaders and laggards

For the time being, however, the focus is on the government’s plans for COP26. There was good news with Glasgow City Council voting to ban corporations that “contribute towards catastrophic climate change” from public buildings during the conference. How it will identify the polluters (that is, “commercial organisations who deny, ignore or wilfully contribute to catastrophic climate change”, according to the council’s initial motion) remains to be seen.

The bad news concerns not the conference but the government’s ability to lead the negotiations from a position of strength. Climate campaigner Greta Thunbeg accused prime minister Boris Johnson of lying about the UK’s position as a “climate leader”. She said “creative accounting” had been used to show emissions reductions of 45% since 1990, with those statistics failing to include the UK’s share of emissions from international aviation, shipping and imported goods.

The government said its calculations were in line with standards set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Still, the government is under increasing pressure to reveal how it plans to reach net-zero. The current policy vacuum is leaving space for sceptics to “complain, attack and undermine” the target, said Climate Change Committee chair Lord Deben in an interview with The Guardian. With the crunch talks just a couple of months away, news that some MPs are planning a backbench group to challenge the government not only on its plans (when they emerge) but the cost of them, is concerning.

“We should pause for breath, inject some rational thinking and consider the alternatives before it’s too late,” wrote Craig Mackinlay, who will lead the group, according to ITV. His concern is that the ambitions will only balloon as the government seeks to play “Top Trumps” on international climate policy this November.

Carbon competitions

Action on climate change is certainly proving competitive. More companies are spewing out data on their emissions as well as carbon footprints for individual products. Dairy cooperative Arla has produced a number of stats of late: a kilo of raw milk from its European business emits 1.15kgCO2e, while in the UK the figure is 1.13kgCO2e. That would drop to 0.95kgCO2e if all its farmers performed to the level of the best 10%, according to a report published in August. The company has a target to cut those per kilo of milk emissions by 30% by 2030, to 0.79kgCO2e. No mean feat.

Such data is important, not only to drive down emissions from a sector with a hefty hoofprint, but to prevent use of global figures being used to compare products – whose emissions can be double the UK figures (an average of 1.25kgCO2e per kilo). Reacting to Arla’s research, carbon counting expert and author Mike Berners-Lee told BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme that there is “still room” for dairy and meat in diets but however efficient those farms may become consumption will still need to fall.

How much is the big question, of course. These carbon reduction plans need to be handled with care. Some criticise targets based on emissions per kilo or litre of milk as “greenwash”. “[…] companies can highlight emissions reductions per litre of milk even if their total emissions continue to rise due to increases in milk production and rising numbers of animals in supply chains,” noted the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in a report last year.

Dairy is a sector under the spotlight, not least given the bold claims and soaring sales of plant based alternatives. Research published in the journal Climate Change showed that some companies, if they carried on as usual while national emissions fell in line with nationally determined contributions (NDCs), could exceed the emissions of the entire country where they are headquartered. This line was particularly damning: “[…] in general animal agriculture has not been fully considered in countries’ and companies’ climate commitments”.

CH4 to the fore

The research presented a mixed bag of commitments made by the world’s biggest dairy companies. Some had made no commitments, others didn’t include scope 3 emissions or ignored methane.

Expect that particular gas, which is hugely significant to the agriculture and food sector (think burping cows and food waste), to be a hot topic in the coming months.

Farmers Guardian recently claimed there is a “growing body of evidence” to suggest methane from cattle may not be as harmful to the climate as we are led to believe. That might be stretching it a bit, given that the piece coincided with the IPCC’s latest report, published in August and approved by 195 member governments and thousands of experts, showing the need to rapidly reduce methane emissions.

Livestock is the largest source of methane, being responsible for 31% of the global total. But this requires behaviour change – eating less meat and dairy – which is difficult, noted Nature in an editorial on the gas. That’s why companies are working on reductions from livestock systems too.

Burger King attracted attention and criticism earlier in the summer for its “low methane” burgers from cows fed on lemongrass. Others are investigating a range of feed additives, including algae, that could help reduce methane emissions. In its new initiative, ‘Pathways to dairy net-zero’, the Global Dairy Platform noted that reducing methane may be the “key to fast results”.

Footprint will be keeping pace with the news, views and trends as climate policies and corporate promises are unveiled in the race to net-zero.

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