Ramping up action on greenhouse gas emissions in the food supply chain: the Courtauld Commitment is setting the standard again

21 July 2021

The decisions we make in the next few years are perhaps the most important in the history of our species. I think by now there is not a person sitting in government or running a business who is not aware of the existential threat facing our planet. It is not about ‘why’ anymore. The challenge now is ‘how’. How to turn commitments and aspirations into meaningful urgent action.

This applies especially to our food system - which could be responsible for as much as nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As Henry Dimbleby attested recently in the UK National Food Strategy, the global food system manages to be both a miracle and a disaster at the same time. It produces enough calories to feed nearly 8 billion people, yet fails to do so and is a major cause of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought and water pollution.  If we want a better world we have to fix our food system. Without doing so we will not achieve the aspirations of net zero or the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

In the UK, one of the primary levers we have for doing this is the Courtauld Commitment. I am pleased we have been ahead of the curve with work already underway across the food chain under the Courtauld Commitment 2025 (Courtauld 2025). When we began planning the next phase in the  journey, we knew though we had to bring it into closer alignment with these global environmental goals. We knew that we had to build on its fantastic success so far, and we knew we had to push further and faster.

I have been delighted by the commitment of our Courtauld partners to share this ambition when we were consulting with them about the final push to the end of the decade. The new Courtauld Commitment 2030 (Courtauld 2030), announced this week, includes new, challenging targets that will see Britain’s food and drink producers, high street retailers, restaurant chains and local authorities work alongside WRAP to deliver real, lasting change. We will fight climate change through a collective effort to cut emissions and conserve our natural resources.

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Alongside continuing work on reducing food waste and water stewardship, a really significant development in Courtauld 2030 is the ratcheting up in our collective ambition to tackle the carbon impact of food. The new GHG target under Courtauld 2030 is that:

We will commit to a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK’s food consumption by 2030

This is a critical milestone to achieving net zero, which is in turn an essential component in limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C in line with the Paris Agreement. I am delighted we have made this happen.

Why? Food is key to limiting climate change

Food accounts for up to around 40%of total greenhouse gas emissions. As the world’s population grows, so too does the pressure on resources and therefore without intervention this will continue to rise steeply.

GHG emissions occur everywhere along the food chain (‘Scope 3’ as it is known under the GHG Protocol). At every stage of the production and supply of all of the products, ingredients, packaging and so on that are purchased from all over the globe, as well as in the home and emissions from landfill. The trouble is that because emissions outside a business’s own operations are notoriously difficult to measure, most businesses do not. In fact, CDP, the charity which runs the global environmental disclosure system, recently reported that fewer than two in ten food businesses are measuring and disclosing emissions from their supply chains. As a result, even though many businesses have laudably set net zero or GHG reduction targets in their own business, they are not always looking at what is happening along the line. Operating in isolation has also led to a myriad of different accounting methods, lack of confidence in data, and, inevitably, inertia. And this is where Courtauld 2030 can help.

How: Consistency and collaboration are key

We already know the interventions which will make the biggest impacts – electricity and heat decarbonisation, low carbon farming, halting deforestation ,tackling food waste and reducing overconsumption. But what has been lacking is collective action and shared responsibility.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that when we convened our Courtauld Commitment GHG Supply Chain Working Group we were avalanched with interest. More than 100 organisations representing all links in the supply chain from farming bodies, to manufacturers and processors, retailers, hospitality businesses along with industry bodies and government representatives, have been collaborating with us, even during these last difficult months, to scope and map out a path to fundamental change. A transformative shift which will put the industry on the trajectory towards net zero.

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The Working Group acknowledged that the uncoordinated approach and lack of clear measurement has stultified progress. Now, under Courtauld 2030, we have achieved agreement to focus on developing a standardised accounting and reporting method (building on the GHG Protocol Scope 3 standard), agreeing a common set of GHG emission factors for different foods by ingredient, production systems and location and ensuring there is a more systematic way of collecting and checking data along the supply chain. Collaboration and cross sector working will be integral to success and we will be working in partnership with other important stakeholders to resolve data and accounting challenges. And we have opened Courtauld 2030 up to new ‘Associate’ members; some of whom may want to work specifically with us on GHG reduction.

Targets are still important in focussing minds on a common goal, but they are rendered pretty meaningless if there is no demonstrable and agreed way of measuring progress against them. It’s a message we push at WRAP in every forum we are in and which underpins and drives all our work.

Later in the year we will publish the GHG Pathway report which outlines how we reached the target, along with the first progress report of the ‘meat in a net zero world’ initiative, which shows how the UK meat industry is already committed on a path to making it one of the most sustainable in the world.

And has always been the case, we are pioneering new and exciting innovations. One such is a pilot working with suppliers to try out different ways of capturing information on progress towards reducing GHG emissions; covering a whole range of products. It will provide a yield of rich insight as well as demonstrating the power of working collaboratively and consistently.

It is perhaps the most ambitious endeavour we have embarked on in the Courtauld Commitment since we started this journey back in 2005. And it will be no mean feat, we know that. But the will is there, and we know we have the means; now we need the action.