COP26: A response, one week on.

Written by Emma Carroll-Monteil, The SRA 

Depending on who you talk to or what you read, the outcomes of COP26 have been described in a variety of ways, ranging from a disappointing failure, to a genuine success providing real hope. As an attendee of the event, and as someone who is experiencing all those descriptors listed, I maintain that these feelings are not mutually exclusive.  

Although we did not attend the Blue Zone (only accessible by those accredited by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), we attended the Green Zone (managed by the UK Government), The Climate Action Innovation Zone (a forum uniting heads of state, environment ministers, business leaders, and NGOs), and a variety of other COP26 ‘Fringe’ events. 

Was food ‘on the table’ in the Blue Zone?  

The short answer is yes, food was involved in the summit, but still not enough. Even though food systems account for approximately 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, this year’s COP was the first to properly discuss food. 

Some steps were taken: The US pledged $1 Billion towards the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate), alongside the United Arab Emirates. Thirty countries signed on in support, with the aim of finding new innovations in agriculture and food systems. Further, the US recommitted to reducing their carbon emissions by half of 2005 levels by 2030, partially through implementing changes to agricultural practices. Somewhat similarly, the US and EU’s commitment to slash methane levels is largely linked to food, as cattle and rice contribute significantly to methane productions. 

Additionally, as part of the Policy Action Agenda, governments signalled their intention to shift to more climate-friendly agricultural practices Unfortunately, this agenda only involved 16 countries. Although, these countries included large greenhouse gas emitters, which in total, represent 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Meanwhile, the UK launched a £65m Just Rural Transition programme to help developing countries move towards more sustainable agricultural systems. 

What about food in the other zones?  

It seems that food was more prominent in the other zones and the other events that occurred alongside COP26. In the Sustainable Innovation Zone, we heard from a variety of businesses and organisations who are working towards making changes to their supply chains, farming methods, packaging methods, and more. At other events such as ‘Forget 2050: Net Zero Now’ – hosted by our partners at Net Zero Now – food and hospitality were at the heart of discussions around transitioning to a low-carbon future (watch the livestream here!). There were also countless other events discussing all aspects of food and sustainability. Even in the Green Zone, though food was not the sole focus of any talks, it was frequently mentioned: yes, food has undeniably played a large role in the climate crisis, but it can equally play a role in climate solutions.  

What were some of the limitations?  

Intention vs action 

My biggest concern was the periodic presence of greenwashing: speaking about something in a way to make it seem more appealing to those who care about the environment, without the evidence to support it. I believe that when businesses rely on intention rather than action to ‘tick the sustainability box’, this is greenwashing. This is part of the reason that earlier this year we transitioned away from being a membership-based organisation and started putting more emphasis on businesses who prioritise action over intention, and actually take the steps needed to make sustainable changes (the latter can be evidenced by completing the Food Made Good Sustainability rating!).   

One of the prominent issues in COP26 was that often, even when food was being discussed, plans around it were primarily theoretical (of course aside from projects such as the Net Zero Now protocols, which provides quite immediate interventions). Businesses would share their plans for their sustainability strategy, however when asked how they would implement the strategy, they would tiptoe around the issue. Often this comes down to finance, where we simply do not have the resources to scale up the innovative agricultural method. Equally, often this is because plans are not yet feasible for the populations that will be involved in delivering the change. Primarily, farmers.  

Where were the voices of the farmers? 

In the Blue Zone, Ishmael Sunga, CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), warned that it is dangerous to tell farmers what their goals should be, as ‘There cannot be a one size fits all’ solution, and these solutions affect the farmer and the consumer differently. Hundreds of millions of people depend on livestock farming for their livelihoods, and although animal farming is often detrimental to the environment, Sunga explained that it ‘It needs to be a just transition. We know most of the farmers in developing countries are near-destitute. It’s also an irony that food is one of the biggest industries in the world, but it delivers so badly for farmers.’  

Similarly, one of the last talks of the Agri-Food Summit in the Sustainable Innovation Zone was by Mary Kinyua, a Fairtrade flower producer from Kenya. She expressed her frustration that in the Blue Zone, decisions are being made about how farmers should be changing their practices, however, rarely are farmers themselves a part of these decisions. Without feedback from the farmers, and a better understanding of what it will be like to make these changes on the frontline, it is easy for these plans to stay as ideas, rather than action. Kinyua’s call to action was ‘Listen to the farmer, we are the context you all seek. We want to be part of the solutions.’ 

What were some of the successes?  

  1. One of the biggest successes from this COP, is that food was on the table more so than ever before. Further, there are plans for food to be even more involved in COP27. 
  2. Businesses are feeling the pressures to put their money where their mouth is and make the sustainability interventions they preach about. Ironically, and amusingly, at the Innovation Zone, even a panellist from Nestle expressed that he felt they were spending too much time sitting on panels and talking about the issues, rather than doing something about them.  
  3. There has been huge emphasis on how consumers drive change. Businesses do respond to customer demands, and we heard this throughout COP. This is validation that individual action can create systemic change – if enough individuals do it.  

What can I and should I do?  

Change your behaviour. As an individual, make changes in your diet, support sustainable businesses, put pressure on your government. As a business, the same goes, but make changes within your business too. The Net Zero Now event was incredibly inspiring, as we heard about how quickly and easily businesses have been able to make significant reductions in their emissions.  

Get credentials. For businesses, taking part in the Net Zero Now initiatives and our Food Made Good Rating provides the kinds of action that Kinyua emphasises is needed: connecting global problems with those on the frontlines of the issues. By providing these resources and tools, we hope that we can make sustainability more tangible and attainable to businesses, and we aim to facilitate those connections described. 

Collaborate. Working together to bridge the gap between global emissions and local action is vital to creating a more sustainable future. A representative from Mott Macdonald phrased this well at the Sustainable Innovation Zone: ‘we work as one, or we fail apart’. 

Stay hopeful. I believe the most important takeaway from COP26, is that the hope of staying below 1.5 degrees global increase has been kept alive, but only just, and only with immediate action. It is invaluable to remember, that we, as global citizens, can be that action. It starts with the next meal you order, or the next menu you design. 

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