COP26: Opportunities for UK to show leadership


By Will Nicholson

It has been a long cold month since COP26 finished in Glasgow and with the Nutrition4Growth summit now drawing to a close, we thought it was worth a quick look back at how food systems figured in Glasgow and what the future might hold. We know that “food” contributes around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as being a key driver for multiple other issues such as nutrition, biodiversity, water, and human rights (see our 2019 Plating Up Progress investors briefing on this). And we know that a 1.5 degree future is not on the cards if we don’t deal with food and agriculture emissions. And most of us agree that in high income countries we need a shift in our diets, alongside global reductions in food waste and a wholesale switch to more sustainable farming practices.

Coming into COP26 there was already a recognition among some that food systems were not really part of the dialogue or agenda, with countries’ own nationally determined contributions missing the link between the food we eat (as a demand-driver) and the importance of preserving natural habitats and protecting landscapes. Gaps in government commitments – for dietary shifts and, outside of food, for lifestyle behaviour changes more generally - was a point made by the UK’s Climate Change Committee both before and after COP26.

Commitments made in Glasgow

Ending deforestation

An early announcement involved over 100 countries promising to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Due to the high number of countries pledging, the inclusion of countries like Brazil (in fact, 85% of the world’s forests were covered) and significant funding commitments (£14 billion of public and private funds) this should be a reason for optimism. It also included commitments from some countries to end the trade of commodities most closely linked to deforestation, and from some financial institutions to end investment in activities that are linked to deforestation. What it didn’t explicitly do was connect citizens’ behaviour (consumption) to the impact (deforestation) and failed to build in commitments to reduce the demand that drives deforestation in the first place. For healthy and sustainable diets, it dodged the issue about meat-heavy diets driving land use change to produce soy as a livestock feed input.

Cutting methane emissions

Hot on the heels of the deforestation announcement, over 100 countries pledged to cut emissions of methane by 30% by 2030 (compared to 2020 levels). The main emphasis here was around tackling methane leaking from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure and notably the pledgers did not include China, India and Russia. The commitments also tended to ignore other key sources of methane emissions such as livestock emissions (enteric fermentation from cattle and from livestock manure) and decaying waste. Both are important from a food systems perspective with, for example, methane from livestock contributing to approximately 32% of global menthane emissions. 



Cutting carbon emissions in farming

There were other food-related commitments made during COP26, mainly focusing on reducing carbon emissions from farming (again, a focus on supply rather than looking at demand and supply together). According to the UK COP26 presidency website, by the end of “Nature Day”, 26 countries had set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, and to invest sustainable agriculture research and food supply resilience. This included the UK’s aim to engage 75% of farmers in low carbon practices by 2030.

Filling the gaps for climate and food systems

So there were indeed food-related commitments being made, so it’s not really correct to say food was not on the agenda at COP26, and indeed there were plenty of side-events inside and outside of the conference centre. And “nature” was there – we had a Nature Day, and a number of pavilions in the conference centre were focused on issues related to food such as forests, water, and methane. What was crucially missing was a food systems perspective that included demand and supply together, and cut across different issues to see “food” as a whole. In a way, there was no shortage of events and activism, but there was a real disconnect between that and political commitments for food system change, even though 2 months earlier world leaders had had the UN Food Systems Summit.

Opportunities for UK leadership on food and climate

Some of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are there, but these isolated commitments need joining up. As experts in the field have pointed out, we need to move beyond supply side commitments and we need a food systems equivalent of net zero that can contribute to the overall climate crisis as well as tackle wider issues such as global nutrition.

So here is a working theory: if we agree that food systems need to be part of future climate change negotiations, we probably need someone to take a stand.  We might need to be stronger on individual NDCs before we can expect food to be a central part of global negotiations and multilateral agreements at future COPs. A “Food Day” won’t happen without a few leadership countries banging that drum and someone needs to lead on this. Why not UK as the “departing presidency” to leave a truly progressive legacy by stepping up themselves?

Some of the ingredients are probably in place for the UK to step up.  2021 saw the launch of the National Food Strategy (NFS) – for England rather than the UK, but this is still a pretty unique approach to looking at food and agriculture. The government is committed to respond to NFS recommendations in early 2022 with a white paper and then the pressure really should be on to deliver legislation that creates lasting change. As the departing COP presidency, bringing food systems into the UK’s overall climate change commitments (something the UK Climate Change Committee has long argued for) could lay down a real marker for COP27.

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