No gain without net-zero pain

Technical fixes have a role to play in the transition to a zero carbon economy but our consumption habits will have to change too, says David Burrows.

There is a fine art to crafting headlines that hook you and this one from the Financial Times opinion pages last week certainly got me: ‘Moving to net-zero may not hurt as much as we think.’ I’d just finished writing about how difficult net-zero will be for food businesses to achieve, so my interest was piqued.

The focus was, largely, on us, the public. Our lives haven’t changed after the phase out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) so perhaps this will be the case with the transition to net-zero carbon too? “… we still have fridges, air conditioners and spray cans. There is no consumer convenience we had to give up to save the ozone layer. Once CFCs were banned, alternatives were found quickly,” Martin Sandbu wrote.

He makes some reasoned points that we are already transitioning to activities that are lower carbon. Short-haul flights being replaced by train travel (France is already leading the way on this), electricity from carbon-free sources is well underway (and falling in price), investment in zero emissions cars is accelerating (planes, trucks and ships may be harder but in time will be carbon-free).

“The point is not to underplay the challenge ahead of us, which is gargantuan,” wrote Sandbu. “The carbon transition requires bold steps in politics and policy, and for people and businesses to change their behaviour from fossil-powered to carbon-neutral options.” Fair points, but this next bit sat less well: “But if – hopefully when – we do this, the result need not feel like a revolution. […] victory in the climate fight would amount to our day-to-day-living going on much as it did before. That is a message it would help to hear more often.”

Really? We don’t want to put consumer and business change back by firing out doomsday messages on a daily basis. But equally we can’t lose sight of the fact that our lives (and behaviour) will have to change pretty dramatically. Flying less. Driving less. Using less. And eating less (of certain foods).

Indeed, the author neglects to mention consumption – the elephant in any corporate boardroom or policy control centre when discussions turn to climate change – and food, which is responsible for 34% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent study in Nature Food.

The challenge facing food businesses as, in increasing numbers, they commit to net-zero is gargantuan. Some food-sector commitments are “world class” and make “every effort to be comprehensive, honest and transparent”, says Duncan Oswald, principal consultant at Eunomia, a consultancy. “Others gloss over the relative importance of emissions and suggest that there are easy meaningful solutions when there really are not.”

A major headache is that the lion’s share of emissions emerge at the production end of the chain (so-called scope 3 emissions). Switching to renewable energy in a factory is easy; curbing methane outputs from a cow far less so. “You’re trying to change the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of suppliers in the way they manage land,” Emma Keller, head of sustainability at Nestlé UK&I told me recently.

There are still low-hanging fruits available, through farm management for example and circular approaches to resource use. On a recent Future Food podcast PepsiCo’s VP of environmental stewardship explained how using potato peelings to make fertiliser could cut emissions for Walkers crisps by 70%. Technology will also bring gains – everything from livestock feed to precision application of fertilisers. Regenerative approaches will have a huge part to play, too.

Those with meat and livestock products in their portfolios will find things tough though. Some are ignoring their scope 3 emissions. Others hope to rely on offsets (which can be dubious) and those technological fixes. Consumption is, once again, largely being ignored.

UK politicians, as Footprint noted last week, are happy to leave that up to the market and the public (it’s worth noting that last week, the French environment minister, in an interview with the FT, warned of “profound changes in the lives of our fellow citizens” in order to stay in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord).

Brands talk of encouraging more plant-based eating and ‘better’ meat- and dairy, yet largely avoid the ‘less’ that’s needed to meet the net-zero targets. “…it is hard to see what the end-game will be if your business model relies on burning oil, or belching cows”, Oswald suggests.

Can we really have our carbon cake and eat it? We can, but we won’t be able to have as much of it. And that, as anyone knows, is easier said than done.

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