Food and agriculture high on Copenhagen priorities

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 8th December 2009

The UN Climate Change Conference got underway overnight (7 Dec) in Copenhagen. The intense media attention the conference has generated in recent weeks underlines both the importance of what is to be discussed and how general public interest and concern over environmental issues has increased since the last major UN conference 12 years ago.

Opening the conference, Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen described it as an “opportunity the world cannot afford to miss”. He said a “strong and ambitious climate change agreement” was needed with commitments agreed at the conference supplanting the controversial 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Over the next two weeks, delegates from 192 countries will discuss a range of issues but most crucially will be negotiating targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in particular by developed countries. Officials will also discuss the creation of a fund to mitigate the impacts of climate change in developing countries and the establishment of a carbon trading scheme aimed at ending the destruction of the world’s forests by 2030.

Throughout the conference, food production and agriculture will be much discussed. As the Confederation of the Food and Drinks Industries of the EU (CIAA) points out in a paper prepared in advance of Copenhagen, the issues of climate change and food security are “intrinsically linked”.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 Report (IPCC 2007) predicts that by 2020 yields from rain-fed agriculture in some African countries could be reduced by up to 50%. Climate change will see agricultural production “severely compromised”. In Latin America, productivity in some crops is projected to decrease and livestock productivity decline, with adverse consequences for food security. At the same time, the UN forecasts that, by 2050, the world’s population will have increased by 9bn.

The CIAA calls for the assembled nations to undertake “all efforts to enable a legally binding, environmentally effective and globally equitable international agreement on climate change, covering the period 2013-2050”. It believes “an ambitious agreement” is needed to address “the dual global challenge of food security and climate change”.

The organisation says the food industry can be “part of the solution” but requires “a level playing-field at international level”. A legally-binding global agreement on climate change is crucial for “preserving the international competitiveness of the EU manufacturing sector”.

European food companies believe they have a good story to tell regarding their own efforts to cut emissions. The EU food and drink industry accounts for about 1.5% of total EU GHG emissions, and, between 2003 and 2007, direct GHG emissions from food and drink processing fell by 12.6%, the CIAA claims.

“The industry is actively committed to continuously reducing its own emissions in support of the EU’s targets for 2020 and to contributing in an equitable manner to the required long-term GHG emission cuts for 2050,” the CIAA states in its paper.

By the same token, the EU farming sector has delivered major reductions in GHG emissions since 1990, while worldwide emissions from agriculture have risen by nearly 17%, the CIAA points out. Low-carbon technologies and practices must be disseminated worldwide, including to developing countries, the paper states. It also stresses the positive contribution already being made by food processors working closely with food chain partners, including suppliers to agriculture, farmers, retailers and consumers, in reducing GHG emissions right down the supply chain.

The CIAA paper sets out what it believes a global agreement at Copenhagen must include. First, all countries must sign up to long-term global action and a continuous political process to monitor progress towards the global objectives. The legally-binding agreement must establish a global emissions cap and reduction pathway for all GHG emissions for the period from 2013 to 2050. These targets must ensure global GHG concentrations are stabilised below critical thresholds as established by the IPCC. All sectors must contribute equitably to long-term reduction targets.

Such an agreement, the CIAA says, is necessary “to provide companies with legal certainty for their business operations and with the right incentives for large scale investment in low-carbon technologies, products, services and infrastructure”, while uncertainty on global policy “would undermine industry’s ability to invest profitably and to innovate”.

The view of President Obama, whose apparent decision now to attend the final stages of the conference rather than the middle suggests a commitment to pushing through an agreement, differs substantially from that of his predecessor. The decision by the US not to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol was a running sore. Like many other stakeholders, the CIAA stresses that all developed countries must commit to binding emission reduction targets.

It also states that a “strong universal monitoring, reporting and verification regime for all major economic sectors, including land-use and forestation” must be created, and an enforceable sanction mechanism for non-compliance with reduction commitments must also be established.

The food industry body also believes fair international competition has to be safeguarded. “Healthy international competition for industry needs to be safeguarded on a global level,” the CIAA states. “A process must be started so that industrial sectors exposed to international competition have equivalent obligations. If a comprehensive, legally-binding, global agreement cannot be reached in Copenhagen, it is essential that EU policy makers implement adequate support measures for EU industries in order to ensure the required cuts in GHG emissions in the EU while ensuring a level-playing field globally.”

In addition, the CIAA supports transparent financial support for developing countries. “Successful climate change mitigation in developing countries critically depends on adequate financial support for the transfer of low-carbon technologies and management practices across all economic sectors.”

While the CIAA will clearly be doing its best to show how the food industry is making a positive contribution to tackling climate change and spreading best practice down supply chains, environmentalists and pressure groups will be expressing different views about the impact the industry is having on agriculture and the environment.

The CIAA’s task is therefore not only to show that the food industry is part of the solution but to demonstrate that it is not part of the problem.

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