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NET-ZERO NOTEBOOK: Stuck in the marketing muddle

This month’s Notebook is looking to ‘get a grip’ as researchers call for ‘realism’ regarding carbon sequestration claims. By David Burrows.

“To go over [1.5C of warming] on an annual average is significant,” said Professor Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society. This was of course the news last week that, for the first time, global heating has exceeded 1.5C on average across an entire year. “It’s another step in the wrong direction. But we know what we’ve got to do,” Bentley added.

We do. But it’s not been a great start to 2024 if that were a New Year’s resolution: get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions. Especially for food and farming. 

This little piggy 

Farmer protests in Europe have led to the European Commission recommending a 90% cut in emissions by 2040 but dropping a target for reductions from agriculture. Outlets that saw the usual flow of leaked drafts for the climate plan 2040 reported on references to farming as “one of the core areas to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions” and how “it should be possible” for farming to cut its emissions by at least 20% by 2040 compared to 2015. These have gone but have not been forgotten (as those who read the 605-page accompanying impact assessment will see).

There has been understandable criticism of the last minute move given food and farming’s environmental footprint, the role of the sector in achieving net-zero ambitions and the impact a changing climate is already having on production. Officials are treading carefully with EU elections on the horizon though, with the far-right reportedly “piggy-backing on farmers’ noisy outrage”, according to Politico

But not all the outrage is actually linked – directly or even indirectly to climate change, as an analysis from Carbon Brief details.Indeed, the rules at the heart of the protests – the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy – can’t really be blamed for farmers’ difficulties, since most legal proposals related to agriculture have been “blocked, rejected, or watered down, and have had zero impact on farmers so far”, noted IFOAM, which represents the organic farming sector in Europe. A case of: if it is broke, then don’t try to fix it. 

Professor Tim Benton from the Chatham House think tank offered a more nuanced picture on BBC Radio 4, explaining the need for a ‘just transition’ in which people affected by the changes are not disadvantaged by them. “Change needs to have farmers on board,” he said, but the margins farmers can make have been “squeezed and squeezed and squeezed” and they are having to bear the costs of change. Farmers can’t go green if they are already in the red.

Pack it in

Speaking of red brings us to AHDB’s ‘Let’s Eat Balanced’ TV campaign which ran through January – to promote red meat and dairy at a time when increasing numbers of people are trying to eschew them (Veganuary). Chris Packham had a dig on X at comedian Richard Ayoade who does the voiceover for the AHDB adverts. “You are funny. But this isn’t,” he Xed (formerly known as ‘tweeted’). “You’ve been conned – this cynical & dangerous propaganda is harmful beyond your worst nightmare […] & goes against all scientific advice.”

The levy board was moved to issue a statement. “As an evidence-based organisation, the allegation is hard to ignore. This is especially so because all the claims made within theLet’s Eat Balanced campaign go through stringent checks by AHDB’s experts and are reviewed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ensure upmost accuracy and correctness.” Which isn’t quite true. 

A spokesman for the ASA said: “The ASA does not check or approve claims by advertisers. We respond to concerns about ads once they’re in the public domain or by identifying potential problems through our own proactive tech-assisted monitoring.” It is in fact ASA sister organisation, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), that AHDB is likely to be referring to: CAP offers advertisers a free, confidential and expert non-binding advice on their ad campaigns and how to stick to the advertising rules. The ASA is not bound by the advice and can take action against advertisers irrespective of the advice they received.

AHDB has been defending its campaign to the hilt and is a familiar name in the ASA’s complaints files. AHDB’s 2021 campaign – Eat Balanced – attracted 487 complaints. The ASA investigated the ads to assess whether or not they implied that eating meat and dairy was required to eat a healthy balanced diet or to obtain certain vitamins, and also to determine whether or not there was a misleading implication that livestock was typically grazed. The authority ruled in favour of AHDB on each point. “We play by the rules,” noted AHDB in its response to Packham.

Tall tales and tailpipes

The trouble is, the rules are changing. And fast. Katharine Mason is senior associate at law firm DWF. “Any complaints to the ASA in relation to AHDB’s latest campaign would be considered in light of this previous ruling if the ASA decided another investigation was necessary,” she explains. “However ASA rulings through the course of the last two years have become more and more exacting in terms of additional information which might need to be included in ads referencing green credentials.”

BMW and MG, the carmakers, can attest to that: their adverts last year claiming their electric vehicles are “zero emission” were misleading according to an ASA ruling this month. This is because there are actually emissions associated with making the cars and recharging them if the electricity is generated from fossil fuels. In other words the zero emission claim can only relate to tailpipe emissions.

Readers of Notebook are well aware of the dangers now lurking in making green claims. There is still time to greenwash – new rules are coming but not yet in place in both the UK and EU, for example. It’s a fair bet however that many companies may well keep their marketing teams quiet for the time being. Margaux Le Gallou, programme manager at ECOS, the Environmental Coalition on Standards, an international NGO advocating for environmentally friendly technical standards, policies and laws, is witnessing a “big shift” happening within organisations – from green claims being led by marketing departments to the sustainability teams taking the lead. “This requires different people with different skills and different ways of working,” she explains.

The upskilling and reskilling of the workforce is an important part of the so-called ‘just transition’ to a net-zero economy. PwC’s 27thannual CEO survey has found that 30% of global chief executive officers won’t be bothering with that though, with another 23% thinking about it but not actually doing anything. It’s not easy being a CEO these days. As a comment in the FT recently highlighted: bosses of listed companies must keep a “dizzying number of plates spinning” from geopolitical uncertainty and inflationary pressures to managing reputation risk and making good on those net-zero commitments. 

Regen reliant

For food companies net-zero will be a pain. Measuring scope 3 emissions is hard enough (Wrap has just finished consulting on food and drink reporting protocols (version 2) for these and is analysing responses). Reducing them is likely to prove tougher still. Which is why many are pinning their hopes on regenerative agriculture to save their bacon – literally. 

‘RegenAg’, so supporters say, offers the potential to sequester enormous amounts of carbon in the soil. This potential has turned the heads of major food companies, especially those reliant on livestock for their products. Research in Nature Communications is attracting a fair bit of attention, raising doubts about the feasibility of relying solely on sequestration in grasslands to offset the warming effect of emissions from ruminant livestock systems.

“Soil carbon sequestration offers hope to offset the climate impact of ruminant production systems,” writes Yue Wang, from Wageningen University and lead author of the paper. “It has often been promoted as a promising mitigation strategy. The benefit of this strategy, however, is rather limited.” The study shows that the claims about grazing systems having a negative greenhouse gas balance “could be misleading. […] we need to be more realistic on this if we really strive for climate change mitigation.”

So, adverts aimed at promoting more meat consumption might not be the best idea.