Will this climate conference see food take centre stage?

2nd Dec 19 by Daniel Jones, Policy Researcher

This week climate negotiators from around the globe gather in Madrid. Will they remember the importance of addressing food systems?

Ten years ago this week, I stood in the streets of Copenhagen with tens of thousands of others, calling for climate justice. We left cold and disappointed. Had leaders taken meaningful action, then it would have taken a 3.3 per cent annual reduction in emissions to keep warming under 1.5°C.

Last week the UN Environment Programme released its annual Emissions Gap Report. Reading it, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. The key findings are unequivocal: global greenhouse gas emissions have to fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030. Otherwise, we will miss the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. We can see that we are going to crash, but we cannot seem to take our foot off the accelerator.

And this week climate negotiators from around the globe once again gather, for COP26, the latest round of negotiations on how best to implement the Paris Agreement. To say there is much to be done is a vast understatement: even if every signatory to the Paris Agreement fulfiled their current promises to reduce emissions,  temperatures are expected to rise by 3.2°C.

Globally, countries must increase their collective ambition more than fivefold to meet the Paris target. Together, the G20 is responsible for 78% of global emissions, yet only five G20 members have committed to a long-term zero emissions target.

Amid this broad and somewhat gloomy picture, we’d like to zoom in on one piece of the puzzle which provides some clarity and hope.

Food systems account for 25-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Changes to food demand – food waste and our diets – are two of the five most promising solutions for mitigation. Importantly, interventions into the food system can meet multiple sustainable development goals and are a vital point of intervention in climate adaptation. Across two policy briefs, on demand-side policy more generally and policy for sustainable diets, we make a case for demand-side interventions and begin suggesting concrete policy actions to help. Actions that show leadership. Actions that are fit for the scale of the challenge.

Changing demand matters: we can feed more people, ensure stronger human health, make better use of the resources that we have. Policy-makers have an opportunity – we hope they’ll take it.


The question of whether it is too late to prevent dangerous climate change might not be the right one. Instead, is a more fundamental question: “is it too late to prevent ecological harm and human suffering?”. The answer to that question is a clear yes. Whether it is the fires in Australia, deforestation in the Amazon or Hurricane Maria the damage to ecology, climate and people is not abstract, nor has it ever been.

So this has never really been a task of hitting a numerical target. Our motivations run much deeper than gigatons, degrees and dollars a day. And food is a hugely important part of the human side of action, justice, solidarity and hope. Let’s make it part of the solution too.

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