Food reform can’t distract from fossil fuels at COP28

A combine loads wheat into a truck during harvest in a field of a local agricultural enterprise in the Cherlaksky district of the Omsk region, Russia, September 8, 2023. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko

A combine loads wheat into a truck during harvest in a field of a local agricultural enterprise in the Cherlaksky district of the Omsk region, Russia, September 8, 2023. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko

What’s the context?

Food reform is finally on the table for the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, but it must go hand in hand with cuts in fossil fuels

Anna Lappé is a sustainable food advocate, author, and the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

The urgent need to tackle the climate crisis has become incontrovertible. Yet one of its key drivers, food systems—which globally are responsible for a staggering one third of greenhouse gas emissions—has so far been largely left out of climate change negotiations. This year, that looks set to change.

At COP28, the UN climate change meeting starting in Dubai on November 30, the leaders of more than 100 countries are expected to commit to making food and agricultural reform central to their climate action plans, alongside energy and transport.

This is welcome—and long overdue. And yet, many people - including myself - are deeply alarmed that COP28 is being hosted by the UAE, a petrostate arguing for the “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” of fossil fuels. Only last year the UAE announced a $150 billion investment to accelerate oil and gas production, despite the scientific consensus being that new exploration should have stopped two years ago.

And it's not only scientists and environmentalists that are concerned about this dissonance. Last week 130 leading global businesses published an open letter urging governments attending COP28 to commit to a timeline to phase out fossil fuels completely.

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Flue gas and steam rise out of chimneys and smokestacks of an oil refinery during sunset on a frosty day in the Siberian city of Omsk, Russia, February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko
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The truth is, you can’t have food systems transformation without fossil fuel phase out - and vice versa. While there are significant sources of emissions in food systems that aren’t directly related to fossil fuels, such as methane from livestock and deforestation, the reliance of the sector on fossil fuel input is a critical piece of the puzzle.

New research published today by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food - the organization I lead - finds that food systems account for at least 15% of global fossil fuels burned each year, equivalent to total emissions from the EU and Russia combined.

Fossil fuels are used across all stages of the food supply chain. Petroleum is used to make synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and plastic food packaging. And fossil fuels are also burnt to produce energy to manufacture ultra-processed foods and to transport food around the world.

Our report shows that decoupling food production from fossil fuels is vital to prevent catastrophic climate change. Even if all governments delivered on their 2030 climate pledges, fossil fuel use in our food system would still blow our 1.5C carbon budget by 2037.

The oil companies know this but, as fossil fuel use for power and transport is expected to decline with the uptake of renewable energy and electric vehicles, industry is looking for ways to maintain their growth and profits.

A primary focus is the petrochemicals and plastics used to make and package food. The International Energy Association (IEA) predicts that petrochemicals will drive nearly half of oil demand growth by 2050, outstripping sectors like aviation and shipping. And food-related plastics and fertilizers account for approximately 40% of all petrochemical products.

Companies are seizing the opportunity. In 2016, the American Chemistry Council projected that the fossil fuel industry would spend $164 billion from 2016 to 2023 in the United States alone to construct new, and expand existing, petrochemical projects.

It’s clear the fossil fuel industry—and countries that derive huge revenues from fossil fuel production like the UAE - have a vested interest in maintaining an industrialized, energy-intensive food system. And so where does that leave us, on the eve of COP28 with food systems on the official summit agenda?

First, it’s vital that policymakers, funders, researchers, campaigners, businesses and other experts work together across food and energy issues, rather than looking at them in silos. That means pushing for language on phasing out fossil fuels to be included in the declaration on food and farming that will be announced at COP28.

It also means going further and faster than the minimum bar set by the COP28 host. It’s promising that an alliance of countries who will commit to driving systemic change on food systems through taking a whole-of-government approach is expected to be announced at the summit.

In addition, individual governments will pledge to update their domestic climate plans - or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) - to include further action on food and farming. This is something my organization has been calling for, especially considering food-focused strategies currently missing from over 70% of countries’ climate plans.

Countries that are serious about tackling the climate crisis should show they have ambitious plans to wean their food systems off fossil fuels. This should include phasing out fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides; shifting to renewable energy for processing, cooling, and drying food; supporting minimally processed, less-energy intensive foods and plant-rich diets; and encouraging the uptake of locally-grown food.

Shifting away from industrial methods of food production towards more sustainable ways of farming - including agroecology and regenerative approaches - would not only protect the planet, but also would help address the roots of hunger, create jobs, improve health and protect biodiversity.

The upcoming summit is an opportunity, but one we must not squander. We want to be walking away from COP28 with concrete commitments to decouple food production from fossil fuel use as quickly as possible, as part of an overall climate change policy agenda that is ambitious, comprehensive, and backed by genuine political will.

The time for empty talk is long gone.

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