Global Climate Deal: Navigating Challenges in the Pursuit of Sustainable Food Systems

by Ella

Last week marked a historic moment at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai as 134 countries committed to a declaration aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions linked to food production and consumption. This unprecedented move signifies a paradigm shift in climate summits, recognizing the pivotal role of food systems in the fight against climate change. Notably, COP28 will dedicate a day on December 10th to discuss strategies for curbing emissions from food and agriculture, a first in the summit’s nearly three-decade history.

Clement Metivier, a climate and biodiversity policy expert at the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in the UK, attending COP28, expressed enthusiasm about the inclusion of food in the climate discourse, stating, “It’s great to finally have food on the COP menu.” The acknowledgment of food systems’ significance is seen as a crucial step toward addressing both biodiversity and climate crises. However, experts argue that more substantial efforts are needed to tackle emissions from one of the world’s largest, yet largely unaddressed sources, requiring challenging political decisions.


A Key Player in Climate Action

Ensuring the sustainability of food systems is imperative to realizing the ambitious goal set at COP21 in Paris in 2015: limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. A study conducted by Monica Crippa and Adrian Leap of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre revealed that the journey from farm to table contributes to approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of these emissions, 70% arise from agricultural practices and land-use changes, such as deforestation for crop cultivation.


While opportunities exist to mitigate these impacts by reducing the use of fossil-fuel-intensive fertilizers and addressing food waste, the recent declaration, signed on December 1st, requires nations to incorporate food and agriculture into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for emissions reduction. Despite its symbolic significance, the non-binding nature of the declaration raises concerns about its immediate impact.


Room for Improvement

One notable omission from the declaration is the absence of a mention of the role of fossil fuels in the food system, encompassing transportation, farm machinery, and refrigeration. Metivier highlights this as a “glaring omission” and hopes it will be rectified in the final version of the COP28 agreement.


Lim Li Ching, a researcher at the Third World Network, emphasizes the need for specificity in the commitment. She asserts, “It’s at least a commitment at the highest level, but there’s still not much specificity in terms of what actually needs to be done.” Ching advocates for the inclusion of food systems and the phasing out of fossil fuels in the revision of national climate commitments.

The Challenge of Reducing Food-Related Emissions

The most contentious aspect of curbing food-related emissions revolves around dietary choices. Meat, dairy, and animal products contribute more emissions than other food types, such as fruits and vegetables. A study in Nature Food suggests that globally halving meat consumption could reduce food system emissions by nearly one-quarter, provided the calories are replaced with alternative food sources.

Helen Harwatt, a food systems researcher at Chatham House, stresses the need to prioritize reducing the consumption of animal products in high-consuming countries. However, implementing such changes on a global scale proves to be complex and requires political decisions. Patty Fong, a program director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, describes it as “political” and emphasizes the complexity of the decisions required to achieve these goals.

Governments often prioritize industrial-scale food production, arguing that it ensures safe and nutritious food while promoting economic growth. However, this approach may downplay environmental impacts, according to Li Ching of the Third World Network. The influence of large corporations, including fossil fuel companies, further complicates the landscape, as they often have more access to policymakers compared to small-scale farmers and Indigenous people, who bear the brunt of climate impacts.

Saswati Bora, an executive with The Nature Conservancy, raises a nutritional dimension to the challenge. While high-income countries may have the flexibility to reduce meat consumption, low- and middle-income nations face complexities where meat serves as a vital protein source. In 2019, the EAT–Lancet Commission proposed a plant-based diet with minimal meat or fish consumption, but questions about its nutritional adequacy in low-income settings remain.

The Road Ahead

Global recommendations on reducing food-related emissions are yet to be firmly established, with questions of global equity and nutritional adequacy presenting significant hurdles. As COP28 progresses, stakeholders and policymakers grapple with the complexities of transforming food systems for a sustainable and climate-resilient future. The commitment made by 134 countries is a significant step, but the road ahead requires detailed strategies, political will, and a delicate balance between environmental stewardship and nutritional needs.



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