In the first of a new series of interviews focusing on sustainability issues, Richard Doyle, president of the International Dairy Federation (IDF), spoke with Ben Cooper about the Global Dairy Agenda for Action and his hopes that the industry's recently-launched sustainability platform will foster best practice in climate change mitigation - and facilitate engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders.

If inclusiveness were the sole criterion for success for an industry initiative, the Global Dairy Agenda for Action on Climate Change, an industry-led environmental platform launched last week at the International Dairy Federation's (IDF) World Dairy Summit in Berlin, would already be off to a good start.

For IDF president Richard Doyle, the fact that the initiative has grouped together seven dairy organisations, which he estimates speak for around 90% of the world's dairy production, is a key strength, and makes the Agenda for Action without precedent in agriculture.

"It's unique that these seven international organisations have actually decided to pool their resources together and focus on a single approach," Doyle says. "Personally I'm not aware of anyone else having done this in any other commodities. And that shows that this is a priority for the dairy industry globally, and that everybody is trying to work towards improving the situation."

In order to facilitate the industry's efforts to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and promote the long-term sustainable supply of milk and dairy products, the signatory associations have jointly committed to promoting the development of a standard methodology for assessing the industry's carbon footprint; fostering the adoption of best practice to reduce GHG emissions; advancing the establishment of tools to measure and monitor on-farm and processing emissions; promoting improved farmer understanding of agricultural emissions and opportunities to reduce them; and supporting information sharing to develop cost-effective mitigation technologies.

"I think the most important aim in this is to create a platform where we can demonstrate how active the dairy industry is in trying to address the issue of climate change and in particular the gas emissions," Doyle says.

With that in mind, the timing of the launch just before the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December is felicitous to say the least. Doyle insists that launching now owed more to the timing of the IDF summit in September, but he concedes that coinciding with the Copenhagen conference is also ideal.

"I don't think it was necessarily planned this way because there has been a lot of work done over more than a year. Now it turns out it's also ideal because the Copenhagen meeting is in December, and therefore we've tried to build on it as much as possible, sending a message to politicians and policy makers. We need basically to tell the world in a transparent manner what we're doing, and that we're part of a solution and not part of the problem."

Indeed, the second over-arching aim of the initiative is to engage with politicians to secure a "supportive regulatory policy environment" in which the dairy sector can deliver on the commitments it has made "without compromise to the industry's contribution to global nutritional and social wellbeing".

The coalition points out that the UN Convention on Climate Change recognises that policy frameworks have to balance the need for emissions reduction with supplying nutritional outcomes for the world's population.

The coalition therefore calls on politicians to recognise the nutritional, economic and social contributions of the dairy industry; maintain the use of "robust science", recognising the need to achieve long-term climate stabilisation in an economically optimal way; and recognise investments in science to develop mitigation tools as a contribution equal to emissions reduction itself.

Doyle is forthright about these objectives. "I think basically what we're asking is that politicians consider all aspects, nutritional, economic and social," he says. "By showcasing what the industry can and is doing, I think we're also telling the politicians that we want to work in partnership." But he adds that governments have to be "science-based" in their approach, understand the full contribution the dairy industry makes, and invest.

While engagement with politicians is clearly important, particularly during the lead-up to Copenhagen, Doyle stresses that the initiative is about action, and in spreading best practice making the business case is central. "We're trying to focus on action and action is driven by having the incentive in terms of cost reduction. These activities are reducing the cost of producing milk and processing it or transporting it."

The initiative will be a reference point for mitigation actions taken by industry stakeholders across the world, Doyle explains. These will include agricultural emissions research, investment in greener energy and optimising animal feeding, fertiliser usage, manure management, product distribution and energy use in milking and refrigeration. Regarding waste and efficiency, areas such as the increased use of recyclable and low-impact packaging, waste recovery, energy capture from waste and shelf-life extension for fresh products will be included. A list of projects undertaken or planned in around 40 countries is set out in the coalition's so-called 'Green Paper'.

"We've already got 260 projects around the world that have been documented and put on the website and to me that's the beginning," Doyle says. "These numbers will grow because the stakeholders will actually take note of what others are saying, and good ideas are spread fairly quickly when you have a platform and a portal for people to pick up the ball and go from there. So my expectation is that we're going to see a huge amount of improvement in terms of the number of projects that will be put on the website in the coming year or two."

While the coalition has not set an empirical target for the reduction of the industry's GHG emissions, it will report "measurable and verifiable progress against existing commitments". The first report is due to be published in two years' time.

Quantifying accurately how much the dairy industry contributes to GHG emissions has not been straightforward, and Doyle believes it is overstated by some parties. Research published last year by the European Dairy Association, one of the signatories to the Agenda, estimates the dairy sector's contribution to be around 3%. In its communiqué, the coalition said research being conducted by the FAO will "bring greater precision to this measurement". Doyle expects this figure to be available by the end this month.

The industry has also not sought the involvement of NGOs in the initiative, which Doyle says was a deliberate decision. While pointing out that the project has had "moral support" from the WWF, he says: "We focused first of all on the industry because we wanted to basically show action." However, he stresses that many of the participant organisations are themselves speaking with NGOs, particularly in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

Doyle adds that he expects the launch of the initiative to be a catalyst for dialogue with NGOs during the Copenhagen conference, though at present there are no firm details on how this might be structured. He also believes the Copenhagen conference will be an ideal opportunity to gauge NGO reaction to the industry's new sustainability platform.