The Friday Digest: IPCC’s positive spin on grim climate forecasts and Dimbleby’s departure

In case you hadn’t heard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report this week. “If we don’t act with the necessary speed, we will shoot past 1.5 degrees and possibly even 2 degrees,” Peter Thorne at Maynooth University in Ireland, one of the authors of the report, told New Scientist. “Really, it’s a call to arms.”

Indeed, it’s been five years since the scientists highlighted the unprecedented scale of the challenge required to keep warming to 1.5C. That challenge has become even greater due to a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions. “The pace and scale of what has been done so far, and current plans, are insufficient to tackle climate change,” the IPCC said. Friends of the Earth called the report “Groundhog Day”.

The experts must be tired of producing such grim outlooks, which is perhaps why their press release kicked off in a positive tone: “There are multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now.” 

Frank Jotzo and Mark Howden, academics from the Australian National University who were involved in the review of the report, summed up the 30 or so pages in one line: “The world is up the proverbial creek – but we still have a paddle.”

The IPCC outlines how changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings and land use can all reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they noted, these changes “can make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles, which will also improve health and wellbeing. A better understanding of the consequences of overconsumption can help people make more informed choices.”

Having of emissions by 2030 is still possible. But it won’t be easy. Efficient livestock systems, reducing conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture, carbon sequestration, increased efforts to reduce food waste and a shift to “sustainable healthy diets” will all be required to reduce emissions from the food sector, for example. The IPCC estimates that emissions from food could actually be reduced by 44% by 2050 through “demand side mitigation options” but has no idea what such a shift in diets might cost (there is little data available).

Which brings us to the other big news this week: Henry Dimbleby has resigned as the government’s food tsar. The Sunday Times got the initial scoop. A subsequent interview with  BBC Radio 4’s Today programmesuggests he simply became fed up offering the same warnings and solutions over and over again: "[…] this modern Conservative ideology just thinks it can leave everything in the system without any intervention at all", he said. 

Dimbleby produced the report in 2021 that was supposed to form the basis of the government’s national food strategy. Many of his policy interventions, including sugar and salt taxes and deep cuts in the consumption of livestock products, were ignored however. Restrictions on the marketing of food high in fat, salt or sugarhave also been delayed. 

“There’s an unexploded bomb sitting underneath our society, which is the harm of the health issues from food,” Dimbleby told The Grocer this week“Whatever colour the government is in 10 years’ time, dealing with that mess is going to be a major part of their policy and yet everyone is ignoring it because they don’t want to get stuck in a culture war about health food.”

Does the government really understand the pickle we are in? Mike Barry, a consultant to businesses on sustainability and former head of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A programme, offered a salient summary of the current situation.

“The food system (globally not just the UK) is running on fumes,” he wrote on social media, “but the policy framework that surrounds it feels like it’s barely left the 19th century let alone the 20th. Growing global population. Obesity for billions. Poverty, malnutrition and starvation for billions more. A climate crisis. Biodiversity loss. The weaponising of food. The fears of farmers for their livelihoods and communities. All screams for a more strategic approach yet we get ‘leave it to the market.’ No market, however well meaning, can hope to solve this Gordian Knot. Needs joined up thinking and systemic action to future proof it.”

Dimbleby’s resignation comes just days before his book, Ravenous, is published. Which has made us think it’s about time for brunch. But don’t forget the other news stories this week, which include a report highlighting dozens of cases of greenwashing by food and drink brands and the European Commission’s proposals to clamp down on misleading green claims.

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