Foodservice Footprint NetZ2 Net-zero notebook: The many (Uni)levers of change Out of Home News Analysis

Net-zero notebook: The many (Uni)levers of change

Don’t look up, or down, or back (in anger), because this month we (try and) do it all for you. By David Burrows.

Many articles around this time will look back, or indeed forward. Some will look inwards. Others will look ‘outside (the box)’. Many more will leave you staring at the page, thinking only of mulled wine and turkey (or a plant based alternative).

Sitting down to write this final Notebook of the year coincided with the news that the UK climate minister had flown home from an unfinished COP28 climate summit to vote on the government’s Rwanda bill. Graham Stuart will of course then fly back to Dubai to finish the unfinished business – or more likely miss the finish and claim the UK had something to do with it. 

‘It’ being some kind of agreement from COP28; which appears to be flimsy, having floundered under the force of the fossil fuel nations. With no news but bad news currently, we had been thinking of just closing our eyes and saying ‘la, la, la’. But that wouldn’t get us to 1,200 words (unless there’s a lot of la la’ing). So instead here are a few words – they might be wise, or not; but they are words nonetheless.

Cheap credit 

It has been an annus horribilis for the concept of carbon neutrality, and things could well get worse in 2024. The voluntary carbon market is desperately trying to fix its broken reputation. It’s a big job. Research by Ecosystem Marketplace suggests buyers of carbon credits are willing to pay more for those of superior quality. Considering the average price of a credit “jumped” from $4.04 per tonne in 2021 to $7.37 in 2022, and has slid this year by around $0.4 per tonne, the reality is that emitting carbon is still far too cheap. (Most of the 1,000 companies that set internal carbon prices and report to CDP assume very low prices, too, according to analysis by FTLex).

Market behaviour (for those that stay in the voluntary carbon credit game) must surely head towards integrity and quality in 2024. Deciphering how to achieve this is high on the ‘to-do’ list for corporate carbon counters. The voluntary carbon markets integrity initiative (VCMI) has just produced new guidelines for corporate use of carbon credits. The ‘silver’, ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’ claims (whatever happened to bronze?) set out a transparent and constructive approach, according to experts, and have been welcomed by the likes of WWF.

But beyond this “window dressing” there is the issue of the ‘scope 3 flexibility claim’ – aka the ‘scope 3 get out of jail for a small sum of cash card’ – which WWF and others like far less. The claim “will enable companies to take responsibility for their scope 3 emissions, while getting on the path to net-zero through use of high-quality carbon credits”, says VCMI. NewClimate Institute says it offers a free pass to corporates, providing enough flexibility to render many of their 2030 scope 3 targets as “meaningless”. 

Worth noting here is the current trajectory of emissions from food companies: up, rather than down, it seems. It is quite difficult to say with any certainty, mind, as most companies report emissions but those from scope 3 remain “incomplete”, according to research in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Assessing the world’s 50 largest food and beverage companies, the scientists from Germany and the Netherlands found a total of 0.9 Gt CO2-eq/yr was reported, and this may be only 23–47% of all emissions.

The real thing?

Full transparency and constructive dialogue is what NGOs are asking for. In quiet moments here, we often find ourselves looking at emissions data and corporate reports. The following statement on Coca-Cola’s website caught our eye: “Carbon transparency is key to progress.” Click through and you are offered some details of SBTi and what the SBTi is, and what scopes 1, 2 and 3 are. A statement reads:  “The Coca‑Cola Company has a long history of tracking our environmental impact across our value chain.”

And yet, there are no actual figures or reports of note. So, a question: Why don’t all companies display their emissions on their homepage (or at the very least front and centre on their sustainability page)? And, even better, a graph too of: their baseline, where they are, and where they are heading in 2030 and beyond. Everything else – what they are doing (or not) – can follow. (Anyone already doing this, please send us a link – only by showcasing such transparency will others be bold enough to move too).

Is insetting a bit off?

Carbon accountancy will continue to intrigue, excite and depress in equal measure next year. Expect more scrutiny of food companies’ sequestration claims, for example. Agricultural production emissions are where all food brands have a (pre-January 1st) headache – and it’s thumping louder than many expected when they committed (some in haste) to net-zero. 

Which is why there is growing interest in insetting – carbon offsets within a company’s supply chain, or as some would say “offsets brought home”.

Whether insetting is a good idea, and the part it plays in reducing scope 3 emissions for agri-food companies, promises to be one of the debates to watch. Some of the first measurements from companies who are quantifying soil carbon sequestration, and critiques of those numbers, should come soon enough.

There will also be more news, findings and marketing relating to regenerative agriculture. An EIT Food report this year noted that regenerative farming “should incorporate low emission, carbon sequestration and sustainable farming practices to regenerate soils, boost productivity, increase yields, reduce emissions and capture carbon”. So, you’re talking methane capture, feed additives, precision farming, plant and soil microbiome, new breeds, gene editing, animal health and husbandry, solutions to fertilisers, among others. 

Green fertilisers could actually become a bit of a thing next year. Or not. Research by Yara, a producer of fossil-free fertilisers, shows that given the choice, UK consumers would choose: the cheapest product (53%), the low carbon option (37%), and a fossil-free food (20%). 

Greenwashing – literally

Making such a claim – ‘fossil free’ – on a food or meal would of course be trickier than just switching the fertilisers used on farms. Context is everything these days when it comes to making green claims, as Unilever has just found out.

The FMCG giant is the latest big company to have its green claims assessed in detail by the Competition and Markets Authority. The CMA is looking at some of the claims made by the maker of Dove soaps and Hellmann’s mayonnaise regarding how “natural” products are and whether the use of images and logos makes the products appear greener than they actually are. Recyclability claims are also under the microscope. “We’ll be drilling down into these claims to see if they measure up,” said CMA chief executive Sarah Cardell.

There is a certain irony to this examination of broad and vague claims: Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher recently announced that he is looking afresh at its sustainability goals to ensure they are less aspirational and more tangible. GreenBiz reported Schumacher as saying: “Unilever’s reputation in this area is well-deserved, but … our efforts are being spread too thinly. We have too many long-term commitments that failed to make sufficient short-term impact, and the latter is what the world really needs right now.”

Not a bad message to take into the New Year that one.