Food companies can play key role in re-energised climate agenda

Covid-19 could give renewed impetus to efforts to tackle climate change and, with a new President in the White House and major food companies continuing to demonstrate their commitment to the issue, there are grounds for optimism, Ben Cooper reports.


he seductive, but entirely specious, notion that it’s darkest before the dawn has been imbuing us with groundless optimism for, it’s believed, almost 400 years – and positing this in relation to tackling climate change would be particularly unwise.

There is no doubt that the global effort to address climate change has gone through some very dark days over the last few years but it is no stranger to false dawns either.

Nevertheless, favourable conditions now prevail for significant progress to be made over the coming few years, with the potential to put the pursuit of the Paris climate treaty goals back on track. This has implications for the whole agri-food sector, but food companies could equally play a significant role in making that potential step-change a reality.

The COP 26 UN climate conference, postponed by a year to November 2021 because of the pandemic, was always intended to be a key staging post for the agenda agreed at the historic COP 21 conference in Paris in 2015, but events have conspired to make it an even more significant reset opportunity.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. Just as the decision by Donald Trump to withdraw the US from the Paris treaty dealt it a serious blow before it had barely begun, President-Elect Biden’s commitment to bring the country back into the accord on his first day in office injects impetus at a critical juncture.

COP 26, which will take place in Glasgow, will see signatory countries commit to enhanced plans for emissions reductions, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), in light of the findings of the seminal Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in October 2018. 

Covid-19 informs climate re-boot

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the climate agenda, meanwhile, goes far beyond disrupting conference timetables, not least in relation to food and agriculture. “One of the big chapters in the Covid-19 story is the effect of Covid-19 on our food,” Dr Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, Canada, suggests. 

As far back as April, Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds in the UK, argued, in a blog for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), that the way Covid-19 had threatened the food system could provide insights to improve supply chain resilience in the face of climate change. 

One of the big chapters in the Covid-19 story is the effect of Covid-19 on our food

While Challinor confesses his early contentions were borne at least in part out of hope rather than expectation, such ideas have been consistently and widely espoused over the ensuing eight months. “Climate change can produce a supply-side shock to a food system in a similar manner to Covid-19,” he says. “That is an idea that has emerged in many places and has been taken forward.”

Even the timing of successful vaccine development and the subsequent exit from the pandemic has implications for driving progress. The lead-up to COP 26 is arguably as crucial as the conference itself in raising the level of ambition and maximising the opportunity to re-energise the Paris accord in November. Notwithstanding what teleconferencing has achieved during the pandemic, Fraser believes being free from the “friction” created by the pandemic restrictions will facilitate more effective discussion among the stakeholders ahead of the conference.

Linking the continuing climate challenge with the Covid-19 recovery is also critical, Challinor believes. “There is a lot being done to keep climate change on the agenda and to show the links and synergies with the recovery agenda,” he says. 

Greater focus on food and the private sector

A key element in the COP 26 reset will be greater emphasis on driving down emissions from agriculture. A study published by researchers at the University of Oxford in early November underlined the need to accelerate emissions reductions in agriculture. It showed that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C and difficult even to realise the less ambitious Paris goal of 2°C. 

The role food companies can play in this context is significant. However, while the role the private sector can play is now being given more prominence in the UN-led climate agenda, there is arguably some way to go in harnessing the power of corporations to drive progress.

Food and beverage companies have been leading the charge for climate-smart recovery

Dr Julie Nash, director of the Food and Forests programme at US-based sustainability non-profit Ceres, points to how food companies in the US have continued to develop and invest in action on climate change during a period when there was little in the way of leadership in government quarters. She says it’s evidence of corporate commitment and companies’ capacity to play a key role in collective efforts to address climate change in the future.

"I believe food and beverage companies will welcome opportunities to engage in the climate policy-making process,” Nash says. “Even in the regulatory environment of the past few years, food and beverage companies have been leading the charge for climate-smart recovery.” 

While acknowledging the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body that oversees the UN climate agenda, has been slow to respond to the significant increase in private-sector engagement on climate change, not least by leading food multinationals, Challinor says company-led innovation is going to be “one of the major drivers of change” going forward. 

Progressive companies are “ahead of the game”, Fraser adds, and governments are having to catch up. This issue goes beyond simply acknowledging the contribution leading multinational food corporations are making. Companies such as Nestlé, Unilever, Mars and Danone, along with others, have engaged proactively and will no doubt continue to do so. Progressive food companies were also enthusiastic backers of the Paris treaty before it was signed and have continued to advocate for it strongly after the US decision to withdraw.

However, their capacity to foster greater engagement in climate change mitigation across the food sector more generally is limited. The greater responsibility for this resides with governments and, at the intergovernmental level, with the various UN organisations involved in the climate change agenda.

Healthy people, healthy planet

There is potential for the COP 26 reset to include more engagement with the private sector and an enhanced focus on policies which will foster the uptake of climate-friendly practices by food companies across the entire sector. Chief among these, Fraser believes, is the creation of some a formalised international carbon market or global carbon pricing mechanism. This is also on the COP 26 agenda and making meaningful progress is a crucial objective for the conference.

“The world needs a carbon market,” Fraser says, adding a carbon pricing mechanism is “an absolutely crucial first step” in “unlocking” greater investment in climate-friendly innovation. “It would create incentives for more companies.” Governments are also in a unique position to foster innovation by de-risking and incentivising investment, Fraser adds. 

Meanwhile, Ruth Westcott, climate campaign coordinator at UK agriculture and food pressure group Sustain, believes public procurement will play an increasingly significant role in supporting climate-friendly food production in the years to come. All these are policy innovations to support food companies the UNFCCC process can promote to the signatory governments to the Paris treaty to try to maximise the contributions food companies can make.

A final key trend that could bolster progress towards the Paris goals in the wake of the pandemic and COP 26 is the joining up of planetary and nutritional policy to take advantage of the beneficial synergy between human and planetary health objectives, notably relating climate-friendly and healthier protein sources. 

Once again, this has not been a focus for the UNFCCC to date but is an area where food companies and policy-makers have important and complementary roles to play and UN bodies can help promote joined-up approaches across many countries. 

“Healthy people, healthy planet is a real win-win,” Challinor says. “That’s a great message and very sellable message, recognising the different contributions that governments and the private sector and consumers can make.”