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Commentary

Food System Action: A Roadmap to Keep 1.5°C Alive

Dr Helena Wright, Policy Director at the FAIRR Initiative, says a comprehensive decarbonsation plan for agri-food systems will help policymakers and investors.

It was welcome news to see United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agree at COP27 to produce a 1.5°C roadmap for agri-food systems by the time of COP28. This response came after a FAIRR-led call from investors with US$18 trillion in assets and backed by Christiana Figueres, Ban Ki-moon and Mary Robinson. This is helpful as the landmark roadmap to 1.5°C by 2050 for agri-food systems will be useful for both investors and policymakers alike. This is ever more important in a world where we are already seeing the impacts of floods and heatwaves on our food systems and agricultural production.

The Glasgow Summit at COP26 made a major focus on “keeping 1.5°C alive” with President Alok Sharma noting that it may be too soon to make a call on whether this goal is out of sight. With food-related emissions make up around a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is clear that mitigation action on food systems needs to accompany action on energy. A credible 1.5°C roadmap must also feature clear milestones on crucial areas such as cutting methane, protecting nature, and dietary shifts.

The recent IEA report and UNEP gap report on net zero pathways have noted how difficult it will be to achieve the 1.5°C climate goal. However, as the previous IEA net zero report focused on energy-related emissions, and has not assumed strong action on food-related emissions, it is possible that stronger action on food and land use systems could keep the 1.5°C goal within sight.

Having a realistic global roadmap to 1.5°C that covers food-related emissions could also provide much-needed impetus to policymakers and investors that the goal is achievable, to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change and dangerous tipping points in the climate system. As Christiana Figueres has previously noted: “Nothing gets done without optimism.”

What food system actions are included in 1.5°C roadmaps so far and what is missing?

The previous IEA net zero report included various assumptions, including an increase in land use for bio-energy crops. However, the World Resource Institute and others have pointed out that to ensure sustainable global food security by 2050, we must avoid competition between bioenergy crops and agricultural land use. It is therefore welcome that the upcoming FAO roadmap report will look at both climate change and food security together.

Sustainable and healthy diets were a key focus of the previous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but have not yet featured in the IEA’s net zero roadmap. Whilst the emission reduction potential does vary, the IPCC noted that flexitarian diets with limited meat and dairy could reduce emissions by five gigatonnes – a significant amount of emissions with co-benefits for global health, as well as freeing up land for nature restoration.

Moreover this calculation of emission abatement potential from diet shifts may be underestimated – it could be even greater if you factor in the restoration of land that would otherwise be used for growing animal feed and livestock.

Action on methane will also be important, since the UN has noted that we need to urgently reduce methane emissions to reach the 1.5°C goal – and agriculture is the largest source of methane emissions. Even though methane is a powerful GHG, methane emissions from agriculture were not included in the previous IEA’s energy-focused net zero report.

The importance of key milestones for the sector

It is expected that we will see a major focus on food systems at COP28. A highlight will be the release of the new FAO-led Roadmap to 1.5°C which should include clear milestones on important areas such as methane emissions, biodiversity protection, and healthy and sustainable diets.

On methane, the UN has stated that methane emissions have to be reduced by 45% globally by 2030 to align with 1.5°C. While the Global Methane Pledge is a positive step forward, it proposes a 30% reduction by 2030 which may not be sufficient to align with the 1.5°C target. Moreover, key countries such as China and India have not yet signed up to the Global Methane Pledge.

Other key milestones for 2030 could include reducing the intensity of animal protein production. As an example, the Breakthrough Agenda report includes a reference to reducing the average GHG intensity of protein production to 23 grams of CO2-equivalent by 2030, from the average level of 31 grams in 2019. This is a global average that would look different in different countries and region.

With regards to nature protection, the COP15 Biodiversity Conference has already set the objective of restoring 30% of global land and sea by 2030, so it will be important for the FAO roadmap to align with this global target. In addition, more than 100 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, at the COP26 climate summit.

What is the role of investors in achieving the aims of the roadmap?

Many investors have made commitments to net zero to reduce the material risks of climate change, as well as benefit from the opportunities. The FAO roadmap will help investors who are currently redirecting financial flows and realigning their portfolios, as well as being useful to assess the risks of corporate inaction in a world that is increasingly impacted by climate change.

In terms of policy, it will be interesting to see how new nationally determined contributions (NDCs), due to be unveiled following the Global Stocktake process advanced at the Bonn Climate Conference this week, will be updated and submitted to include agriculture. A previous investor statement organised by FAIRR backed by US$12 trillion of assets called for countries to better integrate agriculture into their climate commitments, and we have seen some progress on this. During COP27, only five countries submitted new NDCs meaning there are many more submissions to come. A clear roadmap from the FAO can be used to assess whether or not the existing plans on agriculture align with the stated climate goal.

Investors need guidance from policymakers if they are to invest with confidence in transitioning sectors, and engagement on policy is an important and effective tool for helping this to happen. Investor influence helped policymakers reach an agreement on biodiversity at COP15 last year, and there is hope of another success story at COP28 in November with the FAO’s roadmap to 1.5°C.

This article was co-authored by Keenya Hofmaier, Policy Officer at the FAIRR Initiative.

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