Opinion: Why food production is key to climate change

The current devastating conflict in Ukraine has rightly diverted media and political attention from climate change and related issues. With attention focused on war, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last month, received less attention than it normally would, but for those who found time to catch up with the findings of this authoritative study, the news was grim.

The report concludes that climate change has already caused “substantial and […] irreversible losses” to ecosystems and that more frequent extreme weather and climate events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security. Looking ahead, he warned that half to three-quarters of the world’s population could be exposed to “life-threatening climatic conditions” due to extreme heat and humidity by 2100.

The IPCC authors also highlighted the likelihood that climate change “will put increasing pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions.” The main message was that the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all”.

Of course, there are links to be made between the war in Ukraine and climate change. The conflict has dramatically underscored the imperative to switch to cleaner energy sources, not only to reduce emissions, but to dilute the influence of oil and gas on geopolitics. This has given a much-needed boost to the drive to wean the world off fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy.

And it’s true that the use of fossil fuels is a huge driver of greenhouse gas emissions, whether they come from heating and power generation, transportation, or industrial processes. The world has a lot to gain by ditching dirty fuels, and this is largely reflected in countries’ national climate plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), submitted as part of the UN Climate Talks. United.

However, recent analysis by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, in partnership with Climate Focus and Solidaridad, reveals that most governments are largely overlooking another source of huge potential emissions savings: the transformation of food systems. Food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste account for almost a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions. And yet most countries’ NDCs fail to address these issues in a systematic or comprehensive way and as a result they are about to miss the opportunity for deep emission reductions, alongside a series of co-benefits for health, environment and economy.

Conservative estimates suggest that changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10.3 billion tonnes per year. This is slightly more than the combined emissions from global transport and residential energy use in 2019, and equates to at least 20% of the reduction needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change. In other words, without transforming industrialized food systems, it will be impossible to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees.

There are multiple ways to reform food systems around the world to make them more climate friendly, while improving diets and nutrition, advancing animal welfare and supporting nature and sustainable livelihoods. . These include moving away from industrial scale production which uses a lot of fertilizers and degrades the environment, directing public subsidies towards environmentally beneficial forms of agriculture, healthy foods and livelihoods and resilient communities, and to promote nutritious, sustainable and complete diets adapted to local needs. ecosystems and contexts. The mix of reforms will be different in each location, but our analysis shows that, on the whole, countries are missing out on this chance.

Of the fourteen NDCs we analyzed in detail (Bangladesh, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Kenya, Senegal, Spain, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and Vanuatu), none fully held accounts for emissions from food imports. , especially those linked to deforestation and the destruction of nature and ecosystems, despite promises made at the United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow last year to halt deforestation and reverse it by 2030. Similarly, none of the plans assessed include specific measures to promote sustainable diets.

Germany was the only country we looked at that had pledged to abandon harmful subsidies that support intensive farming practices and contribute to rising emissions, while France was the only country whose NDC included measures to reduce food loss and waste. China passed an anti-food waste law last April, accompanied by a large-scale “clear your plate” campaign, but this is not reflected in its NDC, showing how in many cases it is part of a lack of coordination and consistency with other policies.

Of all the countries we looked at, Colombia, Senegal and Kenya had the most ambitious measures in place to promote local agroecological and regenerative agricultural practices.

Our analysis shows where the opportunities lie at the national level, but also includes generally applicable lessons on how countries can integrate inclusive food systems transformation into their emissions reduction plans and realize the associated health and societal benefits. It gives governments and other actors a toolkit to use food systems reform to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other health, environmental and social gains.

All parties to the UN climate talks have been encouraged to submit revised NDCs ahead of the next global meeting, COP27, in Egypt in November 2022. They must do so by 2025 at the latest. With food systems transformation offering such accessible gains, with clear co-benefits including health and sustainable livelihoods, there is no good reason not to follow this path. And with climate impacts accelerating and the window for meaningful action closing, there’s no time to waste.

Patty Fong is program director for climate, health and well-being at the Global Alliance for Food Futures.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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Teresa H. Sadler