cop26
Image credit: Louisa Burwood-Taylor / AFN

COP26 produced a ‘yoyo of feelings’ about agrifood’s climate role

November 11, 2021

“It’s been a yoyo of feelings,” I overheard one delegate tell another in the Green Zone of COP26 in Glasgow last week.

That was my experience too – and that of many I’ve spoken to about the UN climate summit that brought leaders from all over the world to the UK this past couple of weeks.

It was hard not to feel overwhelmed. Physically, it meant tramping across Glasgow for what seemed like miles between events; but there was also the onslaught of announcements each day to keep up with. There seemed to be a lot of good news quite quickly with the Global Methane Pledge and the deforestation agreements signed by 137 countries and 10 commodities companies in the first few days.

COP26 was also higher profile than COPs 1 through 26, with this “last, best chance” of averting climate disaster capturing the attention of multiple stakeholders and the public. And while my inbox was awash with press releases from companies and people disingenuously relating their news stories to COP26, it was exciting to be even a small part of it.

Yet, at the same time, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. Disorganized, badly communicated, mid-pandemic, and expensive, COP26 has been on the receiving end of a lot of complaints about elitism and lacking diversity in attendance.

I was equally unimpressed by the programming and only passing mentions of food and agriculture. Last Wednesday was supposedly ‘Farmers Day;’ but a reporter on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today program who was in attendance quipped that “farming has been notable by its absence.” Thereafter, agrifood events were disjointed and few and far between (maybe something the agrifoodtech community needs to do something about next time? Reach out if you’re interested to join forces!)

Moving goalposts

There was also depressing news. Rumors soon started circulating that even if all COP26 pledges were met, it was unlikely we could keep global temperature rises below the oft-quoted 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Speaking at an event I attended at Strathclyde University, Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said this was a “bitter pill” we’d all need to swallow. She further elaborated that the goalposts were constantly moving. Before the Paris Agreement, which Figueres played a significant role in drafting in 2016, 2 degrees Celsius was the upper target. “We now know that 2 degrees is morally, economically, and environmentally — from any point of view — unacceptable,” she said. Before 2015, the target was 5 to 6 degrees of warming. Will 1.5 degrees soon be out of date too?

The commitment from the CEOs of 10 leading ag commodities players to “halting forest loss associated with agricultural commodity production and trade” is exciting. The AFN team and I usually try to maintain a healthy skepticism when it comes to these kinds of pledges made by corporates, given concerns around greenwashing and unrealistic promises. However, the apparent buy-in from this extensive list of leading commodities traders — representing $500 billion of annual revenues — and the fact that the agreement was signed by the companies’ CEOs rather than lower-ranking execs, shows a level of severity and intent to action.

Remarks by other corporates didn’t do much to assuage my skepticism of their climate intentions overall, however.

On a panel at the New York Times Climate Hub, I heard one representative of a large telco reel off a lot of climate-related terms and general calls for action without saying anything substantive about what the company was doing. Similarly, a major bank’s sustainability representative was unable to string a reasonable answer together about how they would start to defund their fossil fuel clients when questioned by the audience.

Incentivising agrifood action

There were several useful sessions, of course. ‘Future of Food Systems’ — hosted by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) — dug into the need for governments to align more of the $700 billion they spend globally on supporting agriculture sectors with climate outcomes. Currently, just 6% of ag subsidies are related to climate mitigation or adaptation. The majority inadvertently drive negative climate outcomes, often by incentivising larger farms, said the speakers.

Our parent company AgFunder invested in IGS‘s $58 million Series B round, which was announced at COP26 by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Read more here

A panel discussion about the role of media in the climate crisis was naturally of interest to me, and the challenge of how to cover corporate climate news helpfully came up. Asked how they respond to reporting climate-related announcements “that are, more often than not, just words,” Rebecca Blumenstein, deputy managing director at The New York Times, and CNBC‘s Steve Sedgwick said that journalists still need to report these pledges – but must ensure to follow-up on them, holding the corporates to account (challenge accepted!)

This week, $8 trillion investor coalition FAIRR and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) hosted a couple of panel discussions entitled ‘Diets, Climate, and Nature: The role of what we eat in a 1.5 degrees future,’ which I only heard about a day before so was unable to attend. The focus was a call on G20 nations to disclose specific targets for reducing agricultural emissions alongside their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) at COP26.

While there were meaningful agrifood conversations like these to be heard at COP26, I’m hopeful that agrifood will be much more prominent at future COP events. The deforestation pledge alone will have major ramifications for agricultural production that no doubt will require a bigger place on the agenda next time around. And if WWF and FAIRR have their way, governments will start getting specific on food and agriculture’s role in the wider climate change challnege, hopefully in time for COP27.

But as a reporter said to a colleague on the BBC’s Farming Today: “It’s been manic, and you can’t necessarily see which direction the whole machine is going.”

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