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The Friday Digest: Baskets, beef and bombast

Where to begin this week. The days in the run-up to the start of COP28 in Dubai have brought: an investigation of meat lobbying tactics on social media (by the Changing Markets Foundation); research showing that climate change impacts and high oil, gas and fertiliser prices will see British households pay an extra £605 for food in 2022 and 2023 compared to 2021 (from ECIU); and a depressing update on the progress supermarkets are making to halve the environmental impacts of the average UK shopping basket by 2030.

The latter shopping basket report, published by WWF, showed some progress on deforestation within palm oil supply chains but very little on soya. There is little sign of scope 3 emissions coming down anytime soon, with issues over data throughout the supply chain. 

Tackling Scope 3 emissions remains the single greatest challenge within the WWF Basket climate outcomes, since they account for at least 94% of every retailer’s entire footprint,” the report reads. “Of the six retailers who have provided data across multiple years, half have seen increases in emissions while the remaining three have reported small reductions, however the data has neither the coverage nor the comparability, to report an overall figure. Given that targets to reduce Scope 3 emissions range between 30-42% by 2030, action must however, be accelerated.” 

You don’t say. Efforts to reduce emissions from food will be in the spotlight at COP28, where there is (for the first time) a day dedicated to food and agriculture. Campaigners are clearly excited by the prospect, and many are keeping their glasses half full where possible. There will for example be plenty of attention on the FAO’s roadmap, which should show how to lower emissions associated from food and farming in line with 1.5˚C. This might suggest that rich countries reduce meat and dairy consumption, while placing emphasis on emissions reductions from farming. “We will be looking at how big food companies will be reacting to this roadmap,” said Nusa Urbancic, CEO at Changing Markets Foundation. 

There is of course hesitation from pretty much all governments around meddling with diets, as we have seen here in the UK. There are also concerns about the response from food businesses and farmers if there are real or perceived threats to them. No surprise, then, to hear that the meat industry is swapping notes on how to sell meat as sustainable (rather than sell sustainable meat, one imagines).  

The Food Foundation also this week produced its second ‘State of the nation’s food industry report’, showing no major UK food retail or foodservice business has a target for, and discloses the percentage of, sales coming from both animal and plant proteins, for example; while 62% of main meals offered by the major UK restaurants contain meat, and only 32% are meatless.  The foundation said that “business transparency has stagnated”. More evidence of greenhushing, perhaps? 

New climate reporting rules are expected to increase transparency, consistency and comparability, helping to restore trust among investors and consumers alike, according to EY, which this week published its sustainable value study. The survey of 520 chief sustainability officers (CSOs) showed progress on emissions reductions is slowing just when it needs to speed up. However, most sustainability executives remain just as optimistic as they were in 2022: two-thirds still feel their organisations are doing enough to make a meaningful impact on climate change. Indeed. Now is not the time for complacency, the consultants warned.

A UN report released last week warned that the Earth is on track to heat up by 3°C if aggressive action isn’t taken. That effectively rips up the pledge to keep temperature rises well below 2°above pre-industrial levels, enshrined in the Paris Agreement that countries adopted at COP21 in 2015. And emphasis is already being placed on investment in renewables and carbon capture, rather than keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Only last month we saw the same thing happening at the global plastics treaty talks, where recycling and waste management dominated discourse that should ideally be aimed at reduced production and consumption.

This year is “virtually certain” to be the warmest on record, said the World Meteorological Organization this week, with 2023 “shattering climate records”. We are likely to sit at 1.4°C. As Tim Benton, director of the Chatham House environment and society centre, said during what Politico referred to as a “markedly downbeat” discussion among climate experts at the think tank’s lodgings on St James’ Square in London in November: “It’s getting away from us. Where is the political space to drive the ambition that we need?”

At least those attending from these shores have room to move on their journeys to Dubai. The prime minister, the king and the foreign secretary all took private jets apparently.