The connection between climate change and agriculture is obvious: food systems account for one-third of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. The relationship between climate change and meat should also be quite evident - animal agriculture has been shown to create between 11-19.5% of the world's emissions, and one study indicated that animal-derived diets emit twice as much as plant-based foods.
Despite all evidence, food has long been a contentious issue at the world's top climate summit. The UN applied climate labels to its meat-heavy food menu at COP26 in Glasgow, with some animal-based dishes having a carbon footprint 30 times greater than plant-based ones. However, it failed to include food and livestock cultivation on the agenda. And, despite the fact that last year's meeting in Egypt featured the first-ever pavilions dedicated to food system improvements, eliminating meat and dairy was not on the agenda.
It hasn't helped that there has been a significant underreporting of the impact of livestock farming on the climate issue (just 7% of climate stories in the media include animal agriculture), as well as a paucity of global climate funding dedicated to food and agriculture. Intensive lobbying by the meat and dairy industries, which receive billions in subsidies from many of the governments attending COP conferences, against the plant-based sector exacerbates the problem and leads to consumer misconceptions, as evidenced by the 74% of Americans who believe eating meat has no impact on climate change.
However, the tide appears to be turning this year. Last month, the UN declared that its catering menu would be predominantly plant-based at the summit in Dubai (which saw the establishment of the UAE's first plant-based meat factory earlier this year). And this was only a taste of what's to come: COP28 will finally have a strong emphasis on food, with policy announcements and a new food pavilion, capped off by a dedicated Food, Agriculture, and Water Day on December 10.
According to Raphael Podselver, director of UN Affairs at food advocacy non-profit ProVeg International, this day will highlight investment in innovation, procurement for regenerative agriculture, national transformation pathways supported by funding mechanisms, and project preparation.
According to him, this is the "first time we are having real discussions on food and agriculture at a COP summit," and he anticipates policy adjustments aimed at increasing plant-rich diets and protein diversity, enhancing food security, and lowering agrifood emissions.
Podselver called the COP28 vow to offer largely vegan food "excellent progress," but says that there is still work to be done to promote awareness among UN nations about the influence of food on the climate, as well as measures to reduce emissions. "We believe climate data is helping to move things forward, particularly the latest IPCC report on the need to embrace plant-based diets to combat climate change," he says.
According to the IPCC assessment, switching to plant-rich diets (together with other alternative proteins) could result in a "substantial reduction in direct greenhouse gas emissions from food production." However, a leaked draft of the original paper revealed that the authors initially advocated for a transition to plant-based diets before softening their language in the final edition.
In any event, Podselver believes the COP28 decision sets a precedent: "We expect to see plant-based catering as well as emissions labelling on food embraced by other summits in the future." We absolutely do not see this as a one-time event, but rather as another step in increasing awareness about how to make our diets more climate-friendly."
The Food4Climate Pavilion will be set up for the second time at this year's summit by a partnership of NGOs. ProVeg, World Animal Protection, Compassion in World Farming, Plant Based Foods Institute, Humane Society International, Mercy for Animals, and Four Paws are among the organisations involved.
The Food4Climate Pavilion will emphasise the significance of prioritising alternative protein production over animal protein, as well as addressing meat overconsumption in the Global North. A wealthier region, and as a group, the world's richest are responsible for 50% of total emissions, compared to 7% for the poorest.
The economic disparity extends to climatic consequences as well. According to one study, if global temperatures rise by 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the richest people will be primarily responsible for the deaths of the poor. The North-South divide was a source of controversy at COP26, when thousands of people from the Global South were unable to participate due to visa and accreditation issues, a scarcity of Covid-19 vaccines, and changing travel requirements.
A slew of food policy announcements will be made during COP28 to assist alleviate the impact of climate change. It covers the roadmap developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to keep global temperature rises to the 1.5°C limit established in the Paris Agreement. "To make a serious effort to stay within internationally agreed-upon temperature targets under the Paris Agreement, we need to enable a shift to alternative protein production as soon as possible," Podselver argues.
However, this objective is under considerable jeopardy. Multiple evaluations have concluded that controlling this temperature rise may be impossible, with many blaming the influence of food and agriculture systems. According to one study, high-methane food consumption must be reduced in order to fulfil the target, as present levels of food emissions will cause at least 0.7°C of global warming by 2100.
In reality, research has indicated that if things continue as they are, the globe will release roughly 1,356 billion tonnes of CO2e by 2100, pushing us well past the 1.5°C limit. Even if we eliminate all non-food emissions (energy and industry), food emissions alone will exceed the 1.5°C carbon budget.
Can we realistically stick to this goal? According to Podselver, there is a 66% likelihood that annual global surface temperatures would temporarily exceed 1.5°C for at least one of the next five years, according to a World Meteorological Organisation report. "The COP summits give the world a chance to stay on track to meet the 1.5°C target, and we hope that by raising awareness of the impact of agriculture on climate change through our Food4Climate Pavilion, we can help the world meet that goal successfully," he says.
He adds that there would be concrete conversations about the COP26 deforestation and methane pledges. Furthermore, the COP28 chair "wishes to obtain a Leaders Declaration on Food Systems, with concrete commitments to transform our broken food systems, mitigate emissions, and ensure food security for all."