Net-Zero Notebook: The devil is in the detail

First came the wave of net-zero commitments; now comes the flood of research scrutinising how companies and governments will deliver their plans. By David Burrows.

This month we start with the new “novel” network of researchers that will explore effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the agri-food industry. With £5m in funding to play with over the next three years, the group of academics and industry experts will also look at how to enhance biodiversity, support healthy consumer habits and minimise the environmental impacts of overseas trade. Easy stuff.

The 2020s is the decade of action on climate, but companies are finding it tough to prove they are changing their ways. More than one third (702) of the world’s largest publicly-traded companies have now set net-zero targets but 65% of those are lacking in credibility, according to the Net-zero stocktake report by the team at the net-zero tracker – a global initiative led by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, Data-Driven EnviroLab, NewClimate Institute and Oxford Net Zero, that assesses global net zero targets to promote transparency and ambition.

“We are now at a watershed moment where peer pressure to hastily set net-zero pledges, especially in the business sector, could result in either a mass flow of greenwashing – or a fundamental shift towards decarbonisation,” said Takeshi Kuramochi, senior climate policy researcher at NewClimate Institute. The authors of the report noted that “even if the bulk of these targets are
not being set in good faith, societal expectations are being created and accountability cycles generated. As scrutiny by civil society, researchers, and policy makers grows ever louder, gone are the days when misleading net-zero targets remain unchallenged.” 

Nestlé in the spotlight

Nestlé’s net-zero plan is seemingly being challenged more than most than most: it’s the biggest of the big companiesglobally (£79bn in sales) and has offered plenty of detail on how it plans to curb its 113 million tonne footprint. “If the company is truly serious about achieving net-zero by 2050, investors will need more detail and the company will need to increase the investment in its suppliers,” said Planet Tracker’s analyst Ion Visinovschi recently.

Planet Tracker is the latest NGO to unpick the company’s strategy – which is “encouraging in its intentions” but “lacks sufficient granularity”. The report picks up changes to methods of assessment that bring targets closer, the need to more than double investment in upstream activities and problems with supplier engagement. Planet Tracker also claims the company will fall far short on targets to reduce scope 3 emissions – a lot of the planned initiatives make sense (for example to reduce emissions on farms, cut methane through changes to animal feed and prevent deforestation in its supply chain) but as yet there is too little detail to “properly evaluate” the probability of success or the likelihood of the actual impact these measures will have, the NGO said.

Nestlé head of sustainability Emma Keller welcomed such probes but questioned the data being used to call out the company’s carbon ambitions. “Our approach is based on the latest climate science and has been validated by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) as aligned with the 1.5°C pathway. We remain focused on delivering against this plan and have already passed ‘peak carbon’,” she said. Greater harmonisation in setting out plans and assessing progress is clearly needed.

Legal challenges

Climate change litigation continues to grow in importance, according to a report by LSE (London school of economics and political science) and the Grantham Institute on climate change and the environment. Almost 500 climate litigation cases have been filed around the world since 2020, and legal action poses a growing risk for the fossil fuel industry and other companies, as well as governments, the researchers said. The fossil fuel industry is the prime target but climate cases are also being filed against a more diverse range of corporate actors: food and agriculture, transport, plastics and finance are all being targeted in multiple cases. “We may also see a growth in cases seeking to enforce standards aimed at the prevention of illegal deforestation in forest-rich nations, as well as more cases seeking compensation for the loss of ‘ecosystem services’ such as carbon sequestration,” they warned.

In July, the High Court ruled that the UK government’s net-zero strategy is unlawful. There was significant detail missing that is needed to allow parliament and the public to properly assess the plans. Ministers were ordered to update the strategy within eight months and present it to MPs. “It’s not enough for the UK government simply to have a net-zero strategy, it needs to include real-world policies that ensure it succeeds,” said Sam Hunter-Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth, which brought the case to the High Court along with Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project.

Politicians with purpose

Liz Truss, the new prime minister, has hardly set the world alight with her plans to tackle climate change. Those who have worked with her are not convinced by her “environmentalist” claims.

But environment minister Zac Goldsmith has claimed she’ll “double down on the drive to hit net-zero”. A short blog for the Conservative Environment Network details (in the loosest sense of the word) just how much doubling down she’ll be doing. On the plus side she mentions food (which politicians often forget can be responsible for around a third of emissions). “I want our farmers to spend more time growing their fantastic food rather than filling in forms,” she wrote. “We will remove EU regulations to supercharge productivity and enhance food security, as well as ensuring farmers have access to the workers they need in the short and long term, and delivering new plans to create the agriculture industry of the future by backing technological advances.” 

Down on the farm

Commitments to net-zero have certainly got corporates thinking about farming – and these days no-one wants to be seen with a plan that doesn’t mention regenerative agriculture. But the claims are under the microscope.

“[…] agribusinesses in the Global North are actively looking to agroecology to rebrand and build new markets under the banners of carbon farming and regenerative agriculture,” wrote Philip Loring, associate professor in food, policy, and society at the University of Guelph, in a piece for The Conversation.

“But, a relentless focus on single outcomes, such as carbon, coupled with industry’s instinct to define and standardise, threatens the transformative potential of agroecology.” 

Loring argues that agroecological systems are “networks of relationships, not collections of practices. They cannot be easily rendered into a set of definitions, standards or technological principles.” Whether it is beef or oats, wheat or milk, brands should certainly be wary of ‘off the shelf’ products marketed as ‘regenerative’. 

Indeed, companies are discovering that the farm-level transition to regenerative agriculture is no tick-box exercise – they have to work with farmers and become more involved at the production level. The risk with regenerative agriculture is that we waste the opportunity for it to be a real lever for change, one farmer told us recently.

Smashing it

The likes of Honest Burgers are investing time and money in creating new supply chains and business models for regenerative beef, while supermarket Morrisons has just committed to produce “affordable net-zero carbon meat, fruit and vegetables” by 2030. 

Which brings us finally to news of the world’s first carbon-neutral carrots (produced by a group of farmers in Nottinghamshire) and trials by potato supplier Branston to slash emissions from potato production – the company is replacing nitrogen fertilisers (by far the biggest emitters in the process) with one made from potato pulp (a by-product of the peeling process). Sustainable spuds, if you will.

Comments are closed.