Food officially made it to the COP27 table this month but the appetite among businesses to publicise their plans is on the wane. David Burrows reports.
“It’s a natural reaction to approach these sorts of summits with cynicism and to brace yourself for disappointment, but I urge you to put away your pessimism; it won’t do us any good,” wrote Paul Polman the former Unilever CEO and sustainable business influencer (yes, it’s a thing) in the run-up to COP27. Whether we ended with glasses half full or half empty now delegates have disbanded is up for debate (and will be for some time).
In brief, there was good news on help for developing nations with support for a loss and damage financing fund (a “new dawn for climate justice”, according to Greenpeace) but there was no commitment by governments to phase out fossil fuels (which effectively makes that aforementioned fund a “down payment on disaster”, suggested WWF).
Efforts to agree a climate agriculture pact also stalled. The so-called Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture is currently pigeon-holed in looking at agriculture (and not food systems) and the document presented at the end of COP27 talked only of livestock farming – a huge emitter of greenhouse gases – in the context of more sustainable systems providing resilience and reducing emissions.
The fact agriculture (finally) merited a day in the spotlight at one of these summits marks progress, however. Food (which let’s not forget is responsible for around a third of global emissions) was also mentioned in the final document (the Sharm el-Sheikh implementation plan). That the FAO will produce a roadmap by COP28 showing how the food sector can align with 1.5 degrees was also welcome news. “There is also a lot of talk about food and farming being genuinely central to the agenda at COP28,” wrote Adele Jones from the Sustainable Food Trust, who was at the talks. “Let’s pray this is true, as it feels like a huge, missed opportunity at the moment.”
Scraping around on scope 3
COP27 certainly seemed to attract fewer public acts of climate affection than at COP26 in Glasgow. Back then it was all about committing to net-zero and the CEOs of many major food businesses got drunk on the PR from simply joining the race to net-zero. Twelve months on and the cost of living has usurped carbon as the crisis at the top of the food sector’s to-do list.
Many global food manufacturers have actually gone backwards, with scope 3 emissions rising in a number of cases. Across nine major food companies assessed by Just Food emissions were up a combined 27MtCO2e between 2020 and 2021. Most pointed to a post-covid sales bounce and noted emissions were still lower than the baseline years they’re working to in terms of their reduction plans. Still, there is massive amounts of work to do between now and the interim 2030 targets many have set through the Science-based targets initiative (SBTi).
UK supermarkets are also struggling with scope 3. WWF’s shopping basket report this month found greenhouse gas emissions from the supermarkets it’s working with have increased by 5% – which is “likely driven by increased sales, or by an increase in the carbon intensity of the products sold, or a combination of the two”. The fact that just three of the nine major chains working with WWF reported their scope 3 reductions is concerning. Even then there was no data behind that 5% rise. From what I can see just two of the UK’s nine largest supermarkets have publicly reported on their scope 3 emission reductions (Asda and Co-op). Many of the other’s websites show nice downward trends on scopes 1 and 2 but little on scope 3 – and the latter accounts for upwards of 90% of emissions for many food businesses.
Assessing scope 3 emissions is of course challenging, as a blog by Carbon Cloud recently illustrated. The experts walked back through the supply chain for a loaf of bread on a supermarket shelf and found an initial 190 parameters that were needed to calculate the product’s footprint, rising to as many as 90,000 or more when using a range of farmers each with their own supply chains and carbon counts. “The food industry has had valid reasons for not having the same pace as other industries leading climate work,” wrote Carbon Cloud, which specialises in calculating footprints for food brands.
But the pace has to pick up. So too does the clarity with which companies are conveying their climate actions. Campaigners, consumers, investors and perhaps in time regulators are all demanding it.
Having looked at the net-zero targets, plans and reporting of around 20 food companies over the past couple of months I quickly realised that comparing them is like comparing apples and pears. Some report total emissions, others report only ‘in scope’ emissions (that large chunks of scope 3 can be omitted is going to grab more and more attention, for sure). Targets are also all over the place, and tracking how companies are doing often involves pawing over annual reports to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), if they are available and not behind a paywall.
CDP would also do well to consider how companies present their data. Rather than the long Q&A style narrative in place currently I’d suggest something like Mondelez has done – all its environmental data are on one page, clearly listed and dated. It really should be that easy to access, read and assess.
It’s just not me saying that carbon reporting and net-zero planning is a mess, either. The UN high-level expert group on the net-zero emissions commitments of non-state entities has come to the same conclusion. The group, basically an A-Team on exposing corporate greenwashing, has outlined what a decent, transparent net-zero pledge looks like. For example, companies should annually disclose their greenhouse gas data, net-zero targets and the plans for, and progress towards, meeting those targets. Data must be comparable to ensure “effective tracking” of progress toward their net-zero targets. To do that voluntarily will be difficult so regulators “should develop regulation and standards in areas including net-zero pledges, transition plans and disclosure, starting with high-impact corporate emitters”, the group said.
Fossil fuel companies get most of the heat when it comes to climate greenwashing. But while not mentioned explicitly in the UN’s report, the scrutiny on food companies as big carbon emitters will intensify now agriculture is on the COP agenda. Net-zero commitments will need tightening and companies will need to be clear about their reduction strategies, noted law firm DWF.
In the interim we could see a period of silence around sustainability, or at least less shouting about it. Footprint has previously warnedthis could be the case as criticism of carbon claims intensifies, and now new research shows “greenhushing” is officially on the rise. “The reasons could range from fear of critique to the fact that SBTs are increasingly expected rather than exceptional when it comes to climate action,” noted South Pole in its 2022 net-zero report.
Polling of sustainability leads at 1,200 large companies in 12 countries by the consultancy shows companies are still driven to set targets because of demand for low-carbon goods and services, but 23% won’t be publicising them. And that’s a problem for a number of reasons: the laggards will keep to the shadows and do little, collaboration among the pioneers could falter and scrutiny will become even harder.
This time last year I wrote that COP26 didn’t quite flop, but a failure to consider food system emissions had left it up to businesses to act. Following COP27, food has its feet under the table, so this certainly isn’t the time for businesses to shy away from the spotlight.