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  1. Analysis
November 26, 2019

Climate change set to define sustainability agenda in 2020

Ben Cooper looks at how climate concerns will not only top the sustainability agenda in 2020 but pervade many other areas of concern.

Identifying climate change as the foremost sustainability issue food companies will face in the coming year is that most rare thing in today’s world, a relatively safe prediction. Ben Cooper looks at how climate concerns will not only top the sustainability agenda in 2020 but pervade many other areas of concern.

According to the disaster movie canon, the shared threat of global cataclysm forces nations to put their squabbles and self-interest to one side. Having had to operate for some years in an unpredictable economic and geopolitical environment characterised by disharmony, apprehension and volatility, food manufacturers may well be hoping reality follows the idealised Hollywood blueprint.

While climate change represents just such a shared threat and has even been portrayed as such on the big screen, in the medium term it is far more likely to add to the uncertainty and volatility than provide a unifying common cause.

Indeed, the UN-led effort in pursuit of the 2015 Paris climate goals is itself in dire need of new impetus. While last October’s bleak report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has increased public concern and created a renewed sense of urgency, it is dissatisfaction with the response of governments that precipitated the global cry of alarm. The Oxford English Dictionary last week declared “climate emergency” to be the “word of the year” for 2019, noting a hundredfold increase in its usage.

The one certainty the climate emergency does bring, however, is climate change stands alone as incontestably the foremost sustainability challenge facing food manufacturers in 2020, and for many years to come. It not only tops the agenda but pervades many other areas of sustainability strategy, notably water stewardship, food waste, packaging and sustainable agriculture.

Higher consumer expectations 

As momentous and influential as the 2019 climate protests and Greta Thunberg phenomenon have been, the coming year may see even greater public concern and engagement. It is a crucial year for the Paris accord. The COP 26 conference, to be held in Glasgow in November 2020, marks the deadline for countries to submit their upgraded Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to global emissions reduction, under the five-year “ratchet mechanism” stipulated in the accord. In fact, COP 26 is when the Paris agreement comes into full effect. 

Crucially, upgraded NDCs will be expected to take account of the IPCC’s appraisal of current progress towards the more ambitious 1.5°C goal. The 2020 US presidential election campaign will focus yet more attention on climate change and the Paris goals, with the Democratic Party candidate certain to be advocating the US rejoins the accord. The election will have taken place before the two-week Glasgow conference and the result will have a huge bearing on the mood of the conference and the outlook for the UN climate agenda.

Further climate protests are inevitable during the year, as pressure mounts on countries to step up emissions reductions. While the high-profile youth protests have focused on pressuring governments, Extinction Rebellion has attacked both government and corporations. Fossil fuel companies and financial institutions were its prime targets in 2019. However, agriculture’s 25% share of global GHG emissions and the agri-food sector’s exposure to issues such as deforestation and biodiversity loss put food manufacturers firmly in the firing-line.

Food firms zero in on emissions

The need for an acceleration in emissions reductions identified by the IPCC is prompting corporations to set new science-based emissions targets aligned with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels. 

Interestingly, the Science-based Targets Initiative (SBTI), the partnership established by CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature to certify alignment with the UN goals, announced last month it would no longer approve targets which are only consistent with the less ambitious 2°C pathway, underlining how expectations are changing. 

Committing to a science-based target aligned with the 1.5°C goal under the SBTI framework is an exacting challenge for food companies, because emissions from agricultural supply chains, which account for around 80% of GHG emissions from food production, have to be included. Nestlé, Danone and Unilever are the first multinational food companies to do so. 

The UN Global Compact has said any “visionary” CEO aligning with the 1.5°C goal in the coming year will be officially recognised in the lead-up to COP 26. By the same token, food companies which fail to review their GHG targets in response to the new reality set out in the IPCC report risk reputational damage. Moreover, the current dynamic state of the climate agenda and the significance of the coming year for the Paris goals suggests merit in acting promptly.  

Agricultural focus 

Climate concerns pervade many sustainability areas, but the heightened focus on climate change in the coming year has unique implications for food manufacturers by dint of their agricultural supply chains.

Increasing demand for plant-based protein represents one of the most exciting growth opportunities for food companies while reducing dependence on animal agriculture offers food companies opportunities to substantially reduce GHG emissions. 

Two further areas likely to be of increasing interest to food manufacturers relating to agricultural GHG emissions in the year ahead are land-use change and carbon sequestration. A unique characteristic of agricultural supply chains is they are the only part of the value chain that can be used as a carbon sink.

When unveiling its net-zero carbon commitment in September, Nestlé said scaling up sequestration in its agricultural supply chains would be a critical element in its GHG strategy. More companies can be expected to explore this option in the coming year. Relatively simple adaptations in farming practices, such as using cover crops and crop rotation to boost the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon, along with tree and hedge planting, will increasingly be seen as a way to support more ambitious GHG targets. 

How land use change can contribute to a food company’s overall GHG footprint is highlighted in the IPCC’s ‘Climate Change & Land’ report, published in August. Emissions impact from land use change is soon to be incorporated into the SBTI framework.

Greater scrutiny on Sustainable Development Goals

It is also in agricultural supply chains in the developing world that food companies are most likely to be aligning their sustainability aims with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With last July’s report on the SDGs recording slow progress on some goals, and even a deterioration in some areas, how food companies associate with the SDG 2030 Agenda is likely to come under greater scrutiny in the coming year and beyond.

The UN has said it is seeking more ambition in the way food companies engage and align with the SDG programme. Food companies have been very active in promoting their alignment with the SDGs thereby gaining a reputational benefit. The UN is looking to ensure food manufacturers make more specific, tangible and measurable contributions towards the achievement of the goals. 

And away from climate change…

The speed at which public concern over climate change escalated this year underlines how quickly sustainability issues can snowball in today’s highly connected world. What happened in relation to climate change in 2019 follows the explosion of the plastic pollution issue during 2017 and 2018.

Identifying an issue or area that could be the next to capture mass attention is extremely difficult but a report from UNICEF on child nutrition, published last month, highlights an area of significant exposure for the global food industry with the potential to do so.

UNICEF’s ‘State of the World’s Children 2019’ report looks at the three forms of malnutrition that affect children, namely undernutrition, hidden hunger and overweight. At least one in three of the world’s children is not growing well due to malnutrition, according to UNICEF/World Health Organization (WHO)/World Bank Group data.

There has been some slow progress in addressing undernutrition, the report states, but hidden hunger – where diets lack essential micronutrients – and overweight are growing.

At least one in two children globally suffers from hidden hunger, UNICEF reports. By 2025, the number of overweight under-5s will have risen from 40m to 43m, and crucially this is no longer confined to wealthier, developed countries. Last year, nearly half of the world’s overweight under-5s lived in Asia and a quarter in Africa. The report highlights the link between increasing hidden hunger and overweight and communities switching from traditional, relatively healthy staple foods to modern diets, including HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) products. 

Regardless of whether UNICEF’s report ignites public concern in the coming year, this issue seems certain to be an increasing challenge for multinational food companies. Responding to the obesity epidemic, for example through front-of-pack nutritional labelling or reformulation, is a sustainability issue for food companies in developed markets, and viewing developing countries any differently is itself, in the long run, unsustainable. 

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