Last week saw over 40,000 heads of state, diplomats, activists, and lobbyists descend on Glasgow for the UN climate change conference, COP26. Whilst the organisers heralded the conference as a success heralding the Glasgow Climate Pact as ‘keeping 1.5 alive’, critics voiced frustration over watered down pledges that won’t limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. In this blog, we review some of the key takeaways from COP26 and insights for the broader food sector.
Announcements by governments and corporations in the first days of the conference — including pledges to end deforestation, phase out coal-fired power plants and mobilize trillions of dollars for green initiatives.
The talks ended a day late, with the organisers claiming the nearly 200 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5 C alive. But was this all ‘Blah blah blah, as Greta Thunberg put it,’ again, or did we make any progress? Whilst the drive to 1.5 might still be alive, it’s clear the gulf between where NDCs (nationally determined contributions) would take us and where science tells us we need to be is enormous.
Over the conference, thousands took to the streets in protest against government inaction and accused companies of greenwashing. On Saturday’s Day of Action over 100,000 protesters made their voices heard while climate change demonstrations were held in other parts of the UK and events also took place in a further 100 countries including Kenya, Brazil, Canada, and Australia.
Positive moves keep temperature warming to below 1.5
Experts have long agreed that levels of warming must remain below the pivotal threshold of 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. The world is currently 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. Going into COP26, many argued that a “good outcome” would be for the 1.5 target to still be alive (i.e. scientifically possible) based on agreed NDCs and other pledges and targets.
In the first week of the conference, there were positive announcements. More than 100 countries agreed to slash their methane emissions by 30 percent (vs 2020 levels). This matters because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2.
More than 100 nations representing more than 85 percent of the world’s forests—pledged to halt deforestation and land degradation by 2030. And India, one of the biggest consumers of coal, pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070, meaning that it will no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by that point.
Climate, nature and the global food system
COP26 also represented a shift in conversation, bringing nature squarely into the solutions sphere and not being viewed separately. Christina Figueres, architect of the Paris Agreement and co-founder of Global Optimism reflected “While the energy revolution一from coal to clean一is already well underway, COP26 marks a new push to achieve the necessary land use revolution this decade: from degeneration to regeneration if we are to keep 1.5ºC in sight.”
Within this context, the global food system is also crucial. Food systems contribute over ⅓ of global greenhouse gases. At an event hosted by WWF experts met to discuss what it means to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, and how shifting consumption patterns can help limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. “If we continue to ignore the food systems, the 1.5°C goal is out of reach,” says Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist for WWF. “We’re not talking enough about consumption.”
According to Loken, even if all other sectors were to fully decarbonise, the emissions from the global food system alone would use nearly all of the carbon budget (the maximum amount of carbon we have left to emit)’, taking us over 1.5 degrees. Shifting consumption patterns will be key to addressing this challenge, but there’s recognition that a more holistic approach akin to the energy sector is necessary.
“We’re lacking at the moment a clear pathway to reach net-zero for agriculture and food,” says Helena Wright, Policy Director at FAIRR, a global investor network focusing on environmental, social, and corporate governance risks in the food sector.
On Nature Day UK supermarkets Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, and Co-op announced a joint commitment to halve nature and climate impacts of food systems by 2030. Orchestrated by WWF, the signatories commit to setting 1.5C-aligned science-based targets by the end of 2022 as well as commitments to halve the environmental impact of supply chains and upstream activities where the food sector has a significant nature, including deforestation and land-use conversion, marine stewardship, land stewardship, sustainable diets, food waste, and packaging.
Solving food waste remains essential in the drive to 1.5
WWF reports found that food waste contributes up to 10% of global greenhouse gas and Project drawdown ranks solving the problem of food waste in the top three interventions in line with a 1.5 degree temperature rise. It’s clear that every step must be taken to drive down food waste if we are to reach net zero.
Whilst it could be argued that given the scale of the problem and potential impact of the solution the issue might have warranted more attention at the main conference, food waste was certainly part of the conversation at side events surrounding COP26.
Zero Waste Scotland brought this idea to life with a creative campaign in partnership with photographer Ian Rankin. The photographer, known for working with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Kate Moss, and Kendall Jenner, launched a new series of pictures aimed at highlighting the impact of food waste on the planet.
The campaign highlighted that sending 1kg of leftover food to a landfill produces the same amount of carbon emissions as doing this for 25,000 500ml plastic bottles. Rankin said, "It's time we viewed food waste through the same, if not a more dangerous lens, than single-use plastics."
ReLondon launched a groundbreaking report mapping food footprint. The analysis of material flows, consumption-based emissions, and levers for climate action provides a blueprint for cities and municipalities. The report found that reducing food loss and waste in London by 50% could achieve an estimated 10.5% reduction in emissions.
Where do we go from here?
In a first for any COP, the final text mentions fossil fuels, stating that “unabated” coal power should be phased down as a priority and that “inefficient subsidies” for all fossil fuels should be removed, although no specified dates are mentioned. Widely regarded as the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal is estimated to be responsible for almost one-third of warming.
Whilst positive, critics argue that the final pact was watered down significantly as a last-minute intervention by India and China altered wording in the text from ‘phase out’ to a ‘phase down’.
“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode.”
According to the Climate Action Tracker, existing national policies would see the world on track to heat up by 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The group reported, “Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”
The final pact failed to chart a clear course to prevent the 1.5 target from being breached. In an emotional final address, COP26 president Alok Sharma said that ‘1.5 is still alive, but its pulse is weak’. In acknowledgement of this, countries agreed to return next year with greater cuts and new targets, accelerating, in theory, their efforts to bend the curve.
COP27 will be held in Egypt, a country defined as high risk from climate change by the World Bank, but that has not yet submitted an updated NDC since 2016. Hopefully, the conference will help raise its level of commitment akin to the UK's new ambitious targets, and the conference's location in Africa will inspire a more inclusive and representative conference than was seen at Glasgow.
As the dust settles on the whirlwind which was COP26, it’s clear that the real work remains to be done to bridge the gap between commitments of action and actual progress. COP26 represents the beginning of converging views on climate change. It reflects the idea that climate change is a universal problem that requires a widespread unified solution.
Governments, businesses, communities and each one of us has a role to play in bridging the gap between the current trajectory and where we desperately need to be. Action needs to be taken in quick, ambitious strides because time is limited and the consequences of inaction are dire.