A plate for the planet

12th Dec 20 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor and Krysia Woroniecka

The UK takes a tentative step toward realising the enormous climate potential of food.

Today, five years on from the landmark Paris Agreement, the UK government hosted a major climate summit – a get together for governments designed to try to ramp up ambition ahead of next year’s COP26, the annual international climate negotiations which were delayed this year due to Covid-19.

The government also – with relatively little fanfare – published its first official submission setting out how it plans to ensure the UK contributes to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, its ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC), the first post-Brexit (previously the UK shared a wider plan with other EU member states). Coming in the wake of a series of climate announcements this autumn, and on the back of the UN Secretary General’s call for countries around the world to declare a climate emergency, as the UK has already done, its fair to say the pressure is on for the UK to set an ambitious tone.

Feedback have been waiting with particular to interest to see what, if anything, this plan would have to say about food. The research is very clear: an Oxford University study published in November, only the latest in a long series of papers with similar conclusions, demonstrated that without action on food system emissions, and even if all other sectors were immediately net zero from 2020, we would likely surpass the greenhouse gas emissions limit needed to keep the world under a 1.5°C increase in temperatures. Taking into account that other sectors are not net zero from 2020, and instead assuming a (still ambitious) linear decarbonisation of non-food sectors from 2020 to 2050, we would surpass the 1.5°C emissions limit by 2031. In other words, we really need to act on food, and fast.

And it seems there’s good news – the UK’s NDC says:

‘The UK is committed to delivering a national shift to healthy diets supported by a sustainable food system which contributes towards a reduction in GHG emissions. The Resources and
Waste Strategy sets out England’s plans to move away from a linear economy, towards a more circular and sustainable economy in which natural resources are used efficiently and waste is minimised.”

This is important because, up until now, very few national climate plans have had any focus on food, despite the fact that, as the UK’s official climate advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, said last week, action like a move towards sustainable diets, and reducing food waste, are ‘low-cost, no regret measures’. They recommended a 20-40% reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030, and a halving of food waste from the field to the fork, by the same date. Unlike, say, complex and as yet unproven technology to capture carbon emissions from energy production and store them so they don’t escape into the atmosphere, reducing waste and eating less meat and dairy needs no new technology, and can be implemented straight away. These measures also have major co-benefits – reducing food waste frees up land, because less space is taken up growing food that is never eaten, and land is urgently needed to grow trees and make more space for nature. Eating less meat and dairy is already recommended by the NHS’ dietary guidelines, and has positive implications for public health – something, post-Covid, we’re all more aware of than ever.

The devil, of course, is in the detail, and there’s little enough of that on how these goals could be achieved – the NDC references the UK’s new National Food Strategy, coming out in January, and it is vital that this strategy grasps the thorny question of not only how to move beyond the UK’s stalling progress on food waste, but also how to fairly and equitably reduce our meat and dairy production and consumption.

There is plenty to do to pave the way for future dietary policy.  At an international level, championing food system measures may help other countries take steps towards realising their climate potential – as hosts of next year’s negotiations, the UK can push for national food systems targets at the COP26. Importantly they can also work on raising awareness domestically through testing measures to shift the public towards healthier diets, increasing education on plant-rich cooking in communities and schools alongside funding plant-rich menus in schools and public institutions through public procurement rules. There is no substitute for leadership, and leadership is very much what is needed right now.

We also need to see some strong signals to the private sector that it too must act. Supermarkets, always key players in the nation’s food culture, also need to take action on diets, and are well placed to make plant rich options appear appealing, normal and easy by promoting low or no meat substitutes, printing a comparison of personal versus average food shop emissions on the backs of the receipts and addressing negative stereotypes such as real men eat meat. However, without government incentives to sell less meat, supermarkets will struggle to go against their imperative to sell more. It will be down to our leaders to take the next opportunity to give the public the sustainability leadership they expect to see.

On food waste, we need attention not just on our plates and fridges at home, but also up the supply chain, on the approximately 3.6 million tonnes of food wasted before it even leaves the farm-gates. An issue, with the spectre of post-Brexit disruption to food supply chains, likely to become even more glaring in the months to come. Of course, wasting food also means wasting the land, soil, fossil fuels and water used to grow it. Halving UK food waste from farm to fork, and then planting trees on some of the spared land, would mitigate up to approximately 11% of UK’s total emissions. At the citizen end of the supply chain, little attention has been paid to how the way that food corporations shape our food environment affects how must we waste, or to the fact that widespread household food waste is in essence an issue of over-purchase. More on how to solve this problem can be found in our recent food waste policy brief.

The climate crisis we face can only be face together. It’s governments’ responsibility around the world not to turn their faces away from this challenge, not to hope that someone else will deal with it. To avoid catastrophic global heating, we need to imagine the most ambitious path we can to a better future and throw everything we have at making this a reality, using the best available evidence as our guide. That evidence says we must act on food. The government has taken a first step – now it’s time to hold them to it. Write to your MP now and call on them to ensure that food is centre table in the UK’s climate plans going forwards.

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