Good COP or Bad COP? We need to focus on fixing food and consumption emissions to keep 1.5 degrees alive

15 November 2021

Chief Executive Marcus Gover led a WRAP delegation which was present throughout COP26. We delivered the same message to politicians, businesses and citizens: we cannot fix climate change if we don’t tackle consumption emissions – those caused by producing the food we eat and the products we buy. Here he reflects on a tumultuous two weeks and looks at what comes next.

Marcus Gover at COP26 montage

What impressed you?

I was impressed by the conviction of the business leaders I spoke to and listened to. It felt like they were ahead of the game and much further along on the journey than many governments. They are rightly focusing on consumption emissions and decarbonising their products - working down their supply chains and helping their customers to play their part.  This is exactly the commitment we are seeing in those signed up to our Courtauld 2030 and Textiles 2030 voluntary agreements.  These are both critically taking action to halve greenhouse gas emission by 2030.

I saw leaders who impressed me with their sincerity, speaking as human beings as well as businesspeople. I was at one event where young people spoke to the business world very movingly about their need for leadership. They sent the message that compassion is empathy, plus action. You couldn’t help but listen.

Of course, the threat of greenwashing was the spectre which stalked the conference. We have to be alive to that through our work at WRAP; and make sure those we work with follow through on their commitments. Our baked in commitments to accountability and transparent reporting are important safeguards.

Graphic with the words business collaboration shared targets, learnings and clear roadmaps deliver success

What were you disappointed with?

Countries overall were too focused on their territorial emissions; rather than factoring in emissions across the supply chain - to produce and import goods for example.

We ignore consumption emissions at our peril. The goods we consume, the food we buy, the clothes we wear, contribute to nearly half of all emissions. And if the developed world reached out to envelop and tackle this beyond their borders, then they are also automatically helping other countries – those often with less capacity to act – directly.

I was disappointed that, whilst there was a lot of discussion on the fringes of the conference about the need to fix our food system, to shift to a circular economy, that these were less prevalent from the formal discussions. There are a few countries who, for example, reference reducing food waste or talk about circularity as a way of managing resources more efficiently; but this should be front of centre of national plans going forward, backed up with clear plans about how they will achieve this. These clear commitments would also help to unlock the investment which will be needed to drive innovation, build infrastructure and shift the mindset away from the make-take-culture which is causing so much damage to the planet.

We will be pushing for this in the post COP environment. It is the missing piece of the jigsaw in my view. The good news is that we have demonstrated how it can be done.

Businesses again, are in front in terms of tackling consumption emissions. There has to be a way bring the business and government agendas into alignment.

“We ignore consumption emissions at our peril. The goods we consume, the food we buy, the clothes we wear, contribute to nearly half of all emissions.”

Global Food Systems

What did you think of the outcomes?

The deforestation commitment is important and has the potential to be a game-changer. The food system is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation so there are significant gains if agriculture is part of the solution. Similarly with the commitment to reduce methane. This is one of the most potent greenhouse gases out there. This must include acting on the methane produced by agriculture – from animals, and food waste, and not just a focus on oil and gas.

The surprise unveiling of a commitment between China and US to work together on emissions was important, and this was a real highlight for me. These are the two biggest emitters in the world so action and leadership from them will make a big difference. In fact, global food waste is the third biggest emitter so if there are significant reductions across all three, it could put us well on the way to 1.5 degrees.

What is the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity from now?

I came away convinced that businesses are up for the fight. From a conviction point of view, but also because they are feeling the heat from consumers. The challenge is the spectrum upon which countries, businesses, individuals are on the journey. And the risk of how the laggards, sometimes for legitimate reasons, will silt up progress. How do we genuinely create a level playing field when there is such disparity? I think one way, and this reaffirmed my belief in WRAP’s approach, is in convening actors together to work collaboratively towards a clear ambitious target and being held to account to deliver it. We do the talking to agree the way forward, and then get on with it. Target, Measure Act is our mantra – simple, but effective.

Businesses are in a good position to see the whole value chain – from the resources extracted from the ground, right the way through to the customer. They are willing to work with organisations like us to see how they can reduce emissions irrespective of where they occur. So, the potential here is huge. I feel that countries can definitely take inspiration from this, and we have a window of opportunity before they submit their national plans, working in alliance with others on the same page as us, to drive home this agenda. It will be challenging, but something we have to do.

Amidst all the trumpeting of success, I also heard lots of people doing some serious calculations and coming to the conclusion that all the commitments, and there were certainly some eye-catching ones, still leave us falling far short of where we need to by 2030. And that puts the target of a net zero target by 2050 in real peril. That was sobering. And demonstrated to me that there is an awful lot to do and the time for talking is over.

What about the role of all of us as individuals?

I was reminded that as consumers, we hold huge power. Nearly half of the GHG emissions pumped out into the atmosphere come from the stuff we buy – food, clothing, electronics and so on. In the UK alone, we produce 200 million tonnes of waste; with roughly the same amount of GHGs associated with producing, transporting, storing, cooking, and disposing of it. Recycling saves around 45 million tonnes, which is not insignificant, but clearly, we need to think about consuming in a different way.

I saw a lot of really innovative and smart ways in which businesses were engaging with their consumers to change behaviours. This will be so important to get right, and governments can play an important role here. We can’t fall into the trap of it becoming a black and white polemic or a message of frugality – don’t eat this, don’t buy that, as this could backfire ultimately. We need to harness what we know is a growing demand for change from the world’s citizens. We need to demonstrate that we can all look forward to a future which is as good, as fulfilling, if not better if we can consume in a different way. This means embracing models like leasing, renting, repairing; all things which mean we waste less and squeeze every bit of life out of products. We possess massive power and should not squander our opportunity now to exercise it.

Graphic with the words Resource Efficiency unlock 2 billion tonnes of CO2e savings

Final takeaway?

The final agreement didn’t go as far as everybody wanted but including a resolution to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C and calling for the acceleration of efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power are significant steps forward. Words on phasing out coal have not made it into any previous agreement despite the importance of doing so.  Our ambitions to halve the greenhouse gas footprints of good and clothing through Courtauld 2030 and Textiles 2030 depend on decarbonising the energy supply to the UK’s international supply chains on top of the specific actions businesses will take.  These programmes are focused on shorter term action and consumption which remains absolutely critical if we are to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C. Sending the message around reducing consumption emissions alongside those talking about energy, transport and territorial emissions will be a priority for us as governments get ready for the next submissions.

Hope is not lost – but is slipping through our fingers. If governments step up and look beyond their own territories; businesses deliver on their commitments and put planet on the same footing as profit and look beyond their own operations; and we all do what we can play our part; then we can definitely inherit a planet which is restored, regenerated, and one which we can live in harmony with.

Graphic with the words WRAP Turning words into action