Net-zero notebook: Climate pledges still lack fizz

Just 20% of company climate targets are in line with the Paris Agreement goals. Should foodservice be doing more? David Burrows reports.

With less than a month to go until COP26 in Glasgow all the news is about a lack of CO2 rather than too much of it. The irony of the whole thing wasn’t lost on Wired, which reported in late September how the UK government announced it was offering £200m to businesses to help them reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while at the same time giving an unspecified figure totalling “tens of millions” to a fertiliser manufacturer so it can produce huge volumes of CO2 as soon as possible.

Whichever way you looked – supply or demand – there was a carbon crisis. Thankfully the government is all over both problems. Kind of.

Beer, no bubbles

Abattoirs were able crack on with their culling and soft drinks regained some of their fizz. But there is trouble bubbling up elsewhere that could really have Brits worried. ITV News last week reported that beer could run out. “There is plenty of beer to go around but supplies of CO2 are getting very tight,” chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, Emma McClarkin told ITV.

The likes of Budweiser, Heineken and Carling are all reported to be fully or partly self-sufficient, having installed carbon capture facilities at sites. This was triggered by a scare in 2018 when a global shortage of carbon dioxide occurred during the football World Cup.

Football didn’t come home, then. But fans have now returned to UK stadiums as covid restrictions are eased. And some have been arriving on bikes, buses and trains to help reduce their carbon footprints. September witnessed the “world’s first net-zero carbon fixture at elite level”. Those attending the Tottenham versus Chelsea game were offered plant-based pies and beers in reusable cups. The players drank water from cartons rather than plastic bottles and swapped their Ferraris for biofuel-driven buses. Trees were also reportedly planted to offset remaining emissions and “restore natural carbon sinks which remove emissions from the atmosphere”.

Neutral but naughty

Criticism of offsetting to achieve carbon neutrality continued this month. Oxfam claimed net-zero targets could become a “dangerous distraction” from the priority of cutting emissions. “Nature and land-based carbon removal schemes are an important part of the mix to lower emissions but more caution is needed to ensure good stewardship that doesn’t threaten food security,” the charity warned in a report.

The barbs were not just reserved for high emitting corporates – too many governments are hiding behind “unreliable, unproven and unrealistic ‘carbon removal’ schemes in order to claim ‘net-zero’”.

The sudden rush of net-zero promises has certainly raised concerns about the vast swathes of land needed to plant trees. The mantra for COP26 is ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ (climate action being harder to pin down to the three word slogans used throughout the pandemic). This has irked campaigners. Speaking at the Green Alliance’s annual reception recently, the government’s climate spokesperson Allegra Stratton said she “gets” the irritation. The government was “throwing the kitchen sink” at achieving its goals for the talks, she said.

That sink would of course be empty (no pre-dishwasher rinses in this government). Also empty is the shelf where the UK government’s actual strategy for achieving net-zero should be. That doesn’t deter the likes of Stratton. "What I'm aware of is right now that we have a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, we have FTSE 100 companies pledging to go net-zero and not only that, but we also have the NHS and hospitals around the country saying you know what, we'll have a go as well," she told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend in August.

One catering company that supplies hospitals told Notebook that across the NHS there is “lots of strategy but not a lot of execution” when it comes to net-zero and emissions reductions.

As Greta Thunberg put it last week, all we hear is “blah, blah, blah” – a three-word slogan, but not one the UK government will be happy with.

Shut up or shout out?

Pledges are certainly coming thick and fast. But are many of them piffle? There is intense pressure (from consumers, investors and politicians) to say something. But can companies then do nothing, leaving plans that rarely go beyond a press release? What about those that say nothing and do nothing?

As GreenBiz has noted, “it’s the so-called leaders that are taking the heat”. Those that are keeping shtum “seem to be getting a free pass”. That doesn’t seem fair – but expect the spotlight to become brighter and bigger.

Research just published by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) showed that across the G20, 4,215 companies have disclosed climate targets to the Carbon Disclosure Project but just 20% of these are science-based targets in line with Paris Agreement goals. “Global emissions must be halved by 2030 if we are to reach a global trajectory that aligns with 1.5°C,” said an SBTi spokesperson. “Record numbers” are joining the initiative though. 

Research commissioned by insurer Zurich UK and undertaken by the University of the West of England also showed how “most industry sectors in the UK are not on track to achieve their climate targets”.

Emissions in the accommodation and foodservice sector are “broadly stable/slightly increasing” the authors noted. “The key challenge for the sector,” they added, “is to reduce emissions from on-site energy use and, with regards to food-related activities, to minimise food waste and embed carbon accounting in menus to enable environmentally-conscious choices.”

Compass UK & Ireland is doing just that. A new labelling scheme has been launched across its workplace catering. Dishes are marked A-E to highlight which meals have a lower or higher environmental impact based on greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Values for each product are calculated using environmental impact data and menu item ingredient information.

Tracking footprints

Not all companies have the money to invest in such schemes, of course. SMEs in particular will struggle with footprinting their menu options. Apps are increasingly available though, speeding the process and reducing the price. The accuracy of the data can be sacrificed however.

Collaborative, sector-based initiatives will help reduce this data workload. Speaking at last week’s Net Zero Festival, Simon Heppner, executive director at Net Zero Now, explained how the platform that’s been created for the hospitality sector (through the Net-zero pub and bar accreditation scheme) has emissions factors for goods and services so companies “don’t have to worry about finding that out for themselves”.

Foodservice in particular is struggling with measurement of its emissions – the quality of reporting on environmental impacts and targets is really poor, according to a new analysis by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA).

WBA has assessed the sustainability commitments made by the world’s 350 largest food companies. Of the 24 from foodservice, only a quarter reported reductions in their scope 1 and 2 emissions. Scope 3 emissions are proving an even tougher nut to crack. “Their reporting is just not out there yet,” WBA’s Sanne Helderman told Notebook. “Foodservice and restaurants are clearly lagging compared to their peers [in processing and retail].”

Sodexo was an outlier, scoring full marks for its work on scopes 1 and 2 and 1.5 out of 2 for its scope 3 reporting. Anheuser-Busch InBev scored full marks on both indicators relating to declarations on greenhouse gas emissions. Time for a celebration – provided there’s enough CO2 to make the drinks.

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