The food and drink sectors are responsible for a lot of CO2e. Food and drink companies know that and they have known that for some time. But thanks to COP28 the world outside will increasingly be aware of this, too.

In Dubai, there were declarations and pledges, investment funds launched and transparent reporting agreed – but, perhaps most significantly, food systems had a mention in the final agreement to come out of the event. “Now we have this ability to talk about food systems as a solution to the climate crisis in a way that we haven’t ever had the chance to before,” said Danielle Nierenberg from Food Tank, a US-based non-profit think tank focused on food.

There are justifiable concerns that such recognition has come very late in the day but food companies should ignore the significance of this shift at their peril. Campaign groups are psyched and ready to engage; policymakers now have renewed motivation (most countries also committed to include food in their next net-zero plans due in 2025); and, internally, CSOs should be in high spirits. The world does not turn on such events, of course, but as the Financial Times has noted on more than one occasion in recent weeks: the power of these meetings lies in their ability to normalise the once unthinkable.

Don’t get me wrong: COP28 could have delivered much, much more on food. Systems will need to adapt, the UAE Consensus noted, while ignoring the mitigation actions required up and down the supply chain. The much-anticipated FAO 1.5°C roadmap meanwhile didn’t so much as dodge the question of meat and dairy consumption but wound back the years with reference to sustainable intensification of livestock production.

This will have been music to the ears of ‘big meat’, which was out in force in Dubai, according to an analysis of delegate lists. Indeed, if the prospect of “phasing out” fossil fuels was hard to swallow for the world’s leaders, the thought of having to dictate on diets (and fend off the farming lobby) would have had them choking on their regenerative beefburgers. Such battles have arguably now only just begun: there were no binding commitments on food or farming in the consensus.

COP is the long game. But, in the short term, how do we reach those 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of circa 50%? This is the question that should be on every CEOs mind in January. Not least because hardly any can say with honesty that their company is doing enough to reduce emissions.

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By GlobalData

More of the world’s largest food and beverage companies have made net-zero commitments. More are disclosing their greenhouse gas emissions – including those all-important Scope 3 ones (which tend to make up around 90% of total footprints). But emissions are actually rising rather than falling.

Hardly any food CEOs can say with honesty their company is doing enough to reduce emissions

Looking around at some of the pre- and post-COP comments from some of those in the industry I do wonder if they need a reality check. Nestlé, for example, offered some highlights of the year recently – from packaging innovations to targets on regenerative agriculture – and there is some laudable work ongoing. But there was little integrity in this guff; nor reflection on the grim challenge the company has in producing a 50% cut in its 94.3MtCO2e baseline emissions within seven years (latest figure: 93.3MtCO2e). Passages like this from Nestlé’s 2023 sustainability update even give the sense that the company is ignoring its own warnings: “Climate change is happening faster than predicted, nature is rapidly being depleted and water is increasingly becoming a risk – both where there’s too much and too little.”

Coy on carbon

Such inconvenient truths are ignored by almost one and all. “We’ve had a frightening example of extreme weather events this year, right on our doorsteps,” wrote Ranjit Singh, president and owner at 2 Sisters Group – now Europe’s biggest ‘higher welfare’ poultry producer – in the autumn. “We cannot go on like this and bury our heads in the sand. We all need to do more. I want my businesses to operate in a way that is better for all, not just for our bottom line.”

This is a company that has yet to map its Scope 3 emissions. It was right out of the consultants’ playbook, the one that asks CEOs to ask: “what good do we bring to the world, and what is our purpose as a company?” To which many shareholders still respond: “To hell with purpose; show us the profits” (more on that to come in 2024).

Or at least: “Show us some greenhouse gas emissions data.” On this, at COP28, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, Bel Group, Danone, Nestlé and the US division of France-based dairy major Lactalis, all committed to report on their methane emissions, and then collaborate on plans to reduce them (Danone has already set a 30% methane reduction target for its fresh milk supply). Arla Foods, Fonterra and Dairy Farmers of America will come under increasing pressure to sign up, too. The six founding dairy companies have “stepped forward to set a new standard for accountability, transparency, and ambitious climate action within the food industry”, said the Environmental Defense Fund, the non-profit coordinating the new Dairy Methane Alliance.

I tend to bang on about transparency every year. The following statement on The Coca-Cola Co.’s website caught my eye recently: “Carbon transparency is key to progress.” Click through and you are offered some details of the Science-Based Targets Initiative, what the SBTi is and what Scopes 1, 2 and 3 are. A statement reads: “The Coca-Cola Company has a long history of tracking our environmental impact across our value chain.”

And yet, there are no actual figures or reports of note. This is a company that emitted almost 65MtCO2e in 2022. That is actually down 7% on its 2015 baseline, against a target of 25% by 2030. Why keep this quiet? Greenhushing? Corporates certainly have a point when they say that talking about sustainability is a hornet’s nest: they are stung if they do and stung if they don’t. So instead they either take the Nestlé and 2 Sisters approach – write something that actually says nothing – or keep their heads down (in the sand).

This brings to mind one of the insights that stood out for me in 2023. It was in an email exchange with Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, food and agriculture transformation lead at the World Benchmarking Alliance. WBA had recently produced an updated analysis of where the world’s 350 largest agri-food companies are on sustainability and told me that “good sustainability performance isn’t consequential enough. This means laggards can lag. They do not have to be transparent; they don’t show up to global events like the UN Food Systems Summit Stocktake or COP28, and they are not part of campaigns calling upon the private sector to step up. Basically, their action or failure to take action is not made consequential to their business”.

It does depend on how you define a laggard and a leader in climate change, of course. WBA ranks Unilever top (68/100), though it is definitely worth noting that there is really good practice sprinkled across the top performers. Some 32 of the 46 indicators that the alliance assesses have at least one company demonstrating a leading practice, so, if all of those leading practices were combined into one fictional, best-performing company it would score 92/100.

On climate, leaders are currently seen as those who have an SBTi net-zero target and report publicly against it. This is where we are (WBA found just 13 of the 350 companies are doing just that). After COP28’s focus on food, the leaders will have to show much, much more – by reducing emissions, and that means not just pinning hopes on regenerative agriculture (more on that in 2024, too).

Heading the wrong way

The New York Times recently outed a number of major food and beverage companies for their rising emissions. PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Tyson Foods, JBS and Chipotle Mexican Grill were all struggling, with Mars bucking the trend.

Experts at Morningstar Sustainalytics recently unpicked the data for six of them (excluding Mars, for which data was not available) and showed all were highly or severely misaligned with a 1.5°C temperature rise scenario. They also calculated an “implied temperature rise” – the amount in degrees Celsius that the planet would warm if every company on earth acted as Morningstar does, including its management procedures to tackle climate change, by 2050. Tyson and PepsiCo actually came out top – but their efforts replicated globally would still see temperatures rise to a disastrous 3.1°C or 3.4°C respectively.

“While many big food companies are making promises about plans to become net zero by 2050, the data reveals that they are far behind,” the analysts said. “They are increasing emissions when they should be reducing them and they could do more to manage their risks. Even PepsiCo, which appears to be setting the benchmark for the industry, has glaring blind spots in its approach and thus faces major transition risks and challenges.”

The findings remind me of the old joke about stopping in a countryside village to ask for directions. “Well, if that’s where you’re going, I wouldn’t start from here,” the punch line goes. But this is where we are. Food is finally on the COP radar and for food companies that is no laughing matter.