Report: Governments must ‘drastically improve’ efforts to reduce emissions in food, land-use systems 

As the first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) winds down, a new analysis of emissions-reduction pledges finds that those countries that have contributed the most to climate change have committed to do far too little to reduce emissions from the food system and leverage the carbon sequestration potential of landscapes.

The report, published Friday by the Food and Land Use Coalition — which works to bring food systems and land use in line with climate and development goals — warns that progress on these fronts is too slow. It says that unless governments “drastically improve” the sustainability of food systems and land use, the goals of the Paris Accord will go unmet.

Food production and land use contribute to climate change, and must also be part of the solution, said Cecil Haverkamp, a coauthor of the report and a director at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “Countries need to focus on this,” he said.

Together the food system and the land-use sector — which includes agriculture, forestry, and development — account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions occur all along the food chain, from the fertilizers and fossil fuels used in transport and production to food waste and methane from cows. Clearing forests for crop fields, and then plowing those fields, also generates emissions.

But land is also increasingly being eyed as a valuable carbon sink, and there’s a lot of focus on “nature-based solutions,” like conserving ecosystems, planting trees and sequestering carbon in soil. Similarly, more sustainable farming practices and dietary changes can help mitigate climate change.

Yet food systems and land use have gotten far less attention in the COP26 negotiations, and in climate policy in general, than sectors such as energy and transportation.

Ahead of this year’s climate conference, participating countries were required to submit new or updated plans — called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — detailing how they will cut emissions by 2030. These plans are critical because they spell out what countries will do to cut emissions, and, ideally, outline concrete strategies and policies. Taken together, they’re also a useful metric by which to gauge collective progress toward addressing the climate crisis.

With an eye toward food systems and land-use policies, the Food and Land Use Coalition analyzed 15 NDCs from G20 members and key forested countries, including the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Russia, and the U.K. Taken together, these countries account for more than 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news, Haverkamp said, is that this round of plans shows that countries are focusing more on food and land issues. “If we compare it over time, there’s much more and deeper attention to and concern with food and land issues,” he said.

But the main shortcoming, Haverkamp said, is that only a small share of the pledges are “action-oriented” — that is, they do not outline specific policies or strategies for achieving their stated goals. The U.S. plan, for example, mentions the importance of marine ecosystems and “ocean-based climate solutions” but provides few clear specifics on the policies and actions it will use to make progress in this area, according to this analysis.

“We still see lots of lip service that is not giving us a lot of confidence that there’s a lot of people in the country really working on these issues,” Haverkamp said.

The plans also fail to address how countries will help their citizens transition to more sustainable diets. In wealthy countries, that generally means eating less meat and dairy, which are linked to direct greenhouse gas emissions from methane and also drive deforestation.

Similarly, the plans did not tackle the issue of agricultural subsidies, which play a huge role in shaping countries’ diets and agricultural systems by incentivizing the growing of commodity crops instead of fruits and vegetables. Those commodity crops — mainly corn and soy — are the foundation of cheap, highly processed foods. A recent United Nations report found that 90 percent of agricultural subsidies worldwide are “harmful” because they fund practices that destroy the environment, fuel climate change, encourage poor nutrition, and marginalize small farmers.

Addressing these subsidies is crucial, said Patty Fong, director of climate and health at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, who is leading a separate assessment of countries’ climate pledges that will be published in February. “Public finance impacts all food systems, from production to consumption, whether through subsidies and incentives, taxes, or other resources,” she said. “However, because most agricultural policies were not designed to address environmental, climate, social, or health- and nutrition-related problems, they are now exacerbating them.”

Despite these shortcomings, the Food and Land Use Coalition report did point to some bright spots. Several countries, including Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico, took an integrated approach to climate, food, health, and nature issues. Canada has pledged to cut its fertilizer-related emissions by 2030. Ethiopia plans to cut cattle-related emissions by encouraging the consumption of chicken instead of beef.

The U.S. plan — which aims to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — got points for stating specific policy priorities and actions related to the food and land sector, including commitments to scale up climate-smart agricultural practices and encourage reforestation and rotational grazing. It also detailed ways that it will protect and restore nature, by investing in forest protection, reducing wildfire risk, and increasing “blue carbon” sequestration in marine and coastal ecosystems. But the commitment lacked any mention of how to transition to a more sustainable diet, combat food waste, or encourage the public to diversify protein sources, which would require eating less beef.

Haverkamp said that so far COP26 has shown promising signs for the food and land sector, chiefly the pledge to end deforestation by 2030 that was signed by more than 100 countries. But he said the real work will begin when delegates return home from Glasgow at the end of next week and start attempting to translate commitments and momentum into tangible action.

One of the main tasks, Fong said, is to build support for “renewable, healthy, equitable, and resilient” food systems. “All countries must act now to advance bold, inclusive, and systemic action at home,” she said. “We have the science, we have the evidence, and solutions abound.”

Note: This story corrects the title of Cecil Haverkamp, a director at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.