Climate change: a greater threat than COVID-19

19 June 2020, 08:17 AM
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has seen CO2 emissions drop significantly worldwide, but with the resumption of normal business activities, they are likely to accelerate. With the UN warning we need to cut emissions by over 7% each year for the next decade in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, Stuart Lemmon of leading climate consultancy EcoAct takes a look at the role of the food industry
Climate change: a greater threat than COVID-19

In an effort to combat COVID-19, much of the world’s industry and commercial businesses have been under lockdown. As a consequence, we have witnessed a significant global drop in CO2 emissions – April figures report a reduction by as much as 17%. And it is now estimated that 2020 emissions overall will be down by between 4 and 7%. While this may appear good news in the midst of so much fall out from an unprecedented and deadly 21st century pandemic, such a reduction is tempered by the unnerving fact that we need to be reducing emissions much more aggressively. 

Only 18 months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to avoid the most destructive impacts of climate change – drought and rising sea levels causing crop failure, population migration, infrastructure adaptation and wildlife displacement, among others - it was imperative to limit global warming to the 1.5°C temperature goal set by the Paris Agreement by 2050.

Deeply worrying is the recent United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report revealing we are in danger of missing this target – potentially by some way. The report warns that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6% each year between now and 2030, the planet will miss the 1.5°C limit. And we have already reached 1.1°C.

2020 was therefore going to be a critical year to begin delivering against more ambitious emissions targets than ever before. And to an extent, this has been done. Only it has been at the expense of a near total lockdown of industrial and business operations. To put the challenge into stark perspective, we have only delivered an anticipated 4-7% emissions reduction through the virtual standstill of industrial output.

As Glen Peters at the Centre for the International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway states, “In terms of a relative drop, you’d have to go back to the first half of the last century, around WWII. Certainly, in modern times, this is an unprecedented drop.”

However, once ‘normal activity’ is resumed, can we expect the downward trajectory to continue or even remain at its current level? Experience tells us that post-crisis, economic activities tend to accelerate at pace during recovery, bringing with it an increase in emissions. Termed “revenge pollution”, post-recession hikes in emissions, are now anticipated to be one of the biggest threats we face in our efforts to avert the climate crisis.

However, the pandemic has presented us and our leaders with an opportunity to embrace a greener economic recovery. Attitudes among the population demonstrate a marked appetite for change, having experienced the positive side effects of the lockdown and a desire not to fall back on old polluting habits. And the pandemic has shown three key things: that collective action is possible, science matters and should be taken seriously and that government can and should act rapidly to lead.

What does this mean for the food and beverage industry?
The UK food supply chain from production to consumption accounts for about 20% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions1. As a sector very much in the public eye and consisting of a large number of high-profile brands – whether involved in manufacturing, distribution or retail – it is important to make a public commitment to Net Zero. By doing so, companies can not only better hold themselves to account, but can help drive momentum for change across wider society.

To effect real change governance of your ambitions needs to come from the top of the organisation. C-level executives must be on board and championing commitment to deliver a collective target.

As part of this commitment, science-based targets (SBTs) should be set. These are best practice and are emissions reduction targets aligned to the science for limiting global warming to 1.5oC.

Whether setting targets, measuring emissions or reporting, good data is crucial, as are the efficiency of systems and processes when gathering your environmental data. Compliance and voluntary reporting demands on organisations are growing and we are seeing environmental teams being asked for more and more information as climate moves up the agenda. Preparedness is key.

As the food and beverage industry can have lengthy, complex and distant supply chains, companies need to ensure they have a robust footprint covering the full value chain of their business. And that the emissions data is calculated in line with international methodology such as the GHG Protocol.

Opportunities in change
The reduction in emissions which are now incumbent upon all industries – the food and beverage sector included - are ambitious but they also present significant opportunities: meeting increasing consumer preference for low carbon products; costs saved through energy reduction programmes; greater innovation to achieve competitive advantage; enhancement of brand reputation; better preparedness for future legislation and the building of more financially- and climate-resilient supply chains.

With a rapidly closing window to reduce emissions adequately, we need to utilise every tool in the toolbox to minimise our impact. We are unlikely to eliminate all of our emissions in the short-term. High-quality, verified offset projects that support sustainable development can be a way to take responsibility for your full impact as you continue to reduce emissions.

But action cannot be delayed. As Inger Anderson, the UNEP’s executive director says, “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions – over 7% each year, if we break it down evenly over the next decade. This shows that countries simply cannot wait until the end of 2020.”

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