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COP28 & sustainable food systems: on the agenda now, on the table soon?

The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place Nov 30 - Dec 12, 2023, in Dubai (© Harriet Klepper)

Food is not only an integral part of everybody’s life but has also been recognized to be at the root of an important part of global greenhouse gas emissions. At COP28, a first-time dedicated food day on Dec 10, shared with agriculture and water, reflected its wider recognition at the UN’s annual environment conferences. Another first was the announcement of making at least two thirds of the menus offered at site vegan or vegetarian, after criticism of carbon-intensive meat-heavy options at past COPs. It is therefore worth to take stock of the progress concerning the transformation of food systems made this year in Dubai. 

Why food?

Food systems emissions account for around a third of global GHG emissions . Animal products such as meat and dairy are especially carbon-intensive, given that their footprint includes the emissions related to farming the animal (e.g. the methane emitted by ruminants), to producing the feed (e.g. the fertilizer), and to manure management. Different estimates from the past decade point to the conclusion that the livestock sector accounts for 11.1-19.7% of global GHG emissions.

According to the IPCCdietary changes towards low-GHG emission diets could, with high confidence, “provide a technical mitigation potential of 0.7 to 8.0 Gt CO2eq” (B.6.2), compared to business-as-usual scenarios. 

Apart from diets, food waste is another major source of GHG emissions – it would be the third-largest emitting country on the planet if it were a state. Worldwide, around 17% – almost 1 billion tons – of all food available to consumers is thrown away, the UN estimates.

It therefore does not come as a surprise that a research publication in highly cited journal Science concludes that even if we were to put fossil fuel emissions to an end immediately, current food system trends alone would make the 1.5°C target unachievable at a global scale.

What policy progress have we seen at COP28 concerning food systems?

The UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action endorsed by 159 countries as of time of writing (29.12.2023) commits signatories to include food and agriculture into their climate action plans. Countries thereby recognize the impact of food and agriculture in resolving climate change and declare to, for example, scale up resilience to reduce adverse effects of the climate crisis for food producers, support workers in the industry, and promote food security through for instance school feeding and social safety nets. They also vow to transition to less GHG-emitting production and consumption, which explicitly includes a reduction of food waste and loss. It must be kept in mind however that apart from not being legally binding, the text lacks concrete targets. A more ambitious initiative, the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformationswas formed by Brazil, Cambodia, Norway, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. They commit to integrate ten priority action areas into their policy pathway towards the transformation of their food systems, which includes e.g. reducing food loss & waste and reducing GHG emissions. In this context, “dietary shifts should be actively promoted”, their text states.

Another milestone has been the highly anticipated FAO Roadmap that was published during the last weekend at COP28. In principle, the idea is similar to the International Energy Agency’s 2021 Roadmap for the energy sector, applied to food systems: it outlines a path on how to achieve SDG2 – end hunger – while holding on to a maximum 1.5°C temperature rise. Acknowledging the need for a dietary shift, it has set out a number of goals, among them cutting methane emissions from livestock by 25% (compared to 2020), as well as halving food waste at consumer and retail levels emissions, by 2030. It will be followed by two more reports to be published at COP29 and COP30.

Arguably the most talked about outcome from the conference has been the first-ever Global Stocktake, which takes a step back to evaluate the progress made towards achieving the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, and informs countries’ climate action plans. The final text mentions food six times in total: the preamble emphasizes aiming for food security and draws attention to the impact of climate change on food production. Afterwards, it is discussed at four occasions in the adaptation section of the text – inviting countries to ensure access to food, make its production climate-resilient, and implement sustainable agriculture – but finds no mention under mitigation. While the text includes a note on the need to switch to sustainable production and consumption patterns, there is no explicit reference to diets.

Do those outcomes mean we that a sustainable food system is around the corner? This remains to be seen. While food as a topic has been more present at this conference than at previous ones, the only formal UNFCCC workstream to focus on food systems and agriculture – the Sharm el-Sheikh joint work on agriculture and food security, established at COP27 in 2022 – has not been able to agree on a roadmap for the joint work. Instead, the draft conclusions proposed by the Chairs essentially move the negotiations on this matter to the next meeting in June 2024.

How are we moving forward?

Even the best plan – which we do not have yet – would be worth little without implementation. Policy progress on food and agriculture has sent some encouraging signs that what and how we eat is increasingly on the radar of international climate negotiations. The time to act is now.  Translating milestones into concrete measures and national policies is what we will have to be looking out for in the next few months, reminding policy makers of the promises they made while the world was watching. Funding is a crucial aspect to see results of real change. At COP28, more than US$7.1 billion have been raised for a climate-action in food systems. The money comes from different sources, mostly governments, but also from philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Transforming agrifood systems, a sector that employs as much as 1.23 billion people worldwide, will require financial commitments to avoid devastating consequences and exploding costs down the road. Civil society, businesses, and policy makers will need to work together to make a fast, equitable transition possible.