Just before Climate Week, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released its First Global Stocktake, a report on the global progress to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Global Stocktake is required by the Paris Agreement to report progress toward those climate goals every five years.
This is the first report and the news is not good.
Frankly, the results are downright bad. Based on current commitments, we are on track to exceed the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, with predicted temperature increases of 2.4-2.6 degrees C. By way of example, we have just experienced the warmest three months in recorded history under global warming of about 1.1 degrees C along with deadly extreme weather events including massive wildfires and devastating floods.
Imagine what awaits us in a world that’s warmed an additional 1.5 degrees C.
While these prospects are grim, the news isn’t entirely pessimistic. Without the current commitments, we would be on pace to see 3.7-4.8 degrees C of warming — clearly catastrophic for humanity. The Paris Agreement is working to limit global warming. But the message is clear, we need to escalate and expand our goals and purpose.
The First Global Stocktake is not merely a means of telling us where we are failing. It also provides a roadmap to help us get on track to slashing emissions and creating a climate-resilient future.
As expected, the report calls for quickly phasing out unabated fossil fuels emissions. But as the sector responsible for almost one-third of global emissions, the report is also a wakeup call for the ag and food sector. Key finding #6 in the report states:
“… achieving net zero CO2 and GHG emissions requires systems transformations across all sectors and contexts, including scaling up renewable energy while phasing out all unabated fossil fuels, ending deforestation, reducing non-CO2 emissions, and implementing both supply- and demand-side measures.”
For the ag/food system this means:
- Sustainably intensifying food production to allow for feeding the growing population while decreasing the land use required to do so. Deforestation as a means to increase croplands is a significant driver of agricultural emissions. Sustainable intensification must be linked to the restoration of deforested and degraded ecosystems from croplands creating new carbon sinks.
- Rapidly reducing nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizers and methane emissions from beef production. Nitrous oxide and methane have a significantly higher warming impact compared to carbon dioxide and cutting these greenhouse gasses can drive down temperatures in the short term and help reduce peak global temperatures over the longer term.
- Scaling soil carbon removals through regenerative agriculture practices. Soil carbon removals are no silver bullet and are no substitute for deep emissions cuts described above. However, the technology for scaling soil carbon removals currently exists, can help mitigate emissions from hard to abate emissions, and longer term, will continue to help sustain net negative emissions in the future.
- Building resilience through regenerative agriculture. Scaling regenerative agriculture practices also address Key Finding #2 in the report, “supporting systems transformations that mainstream climate resilience.” Creating a resilient food system can also help drive the first goal of sustainable intensification, creating a feedback loop to further drive down agricultural emissions.
Here’s what the food and ag sector needs to heed and action from the First Global Stocktake wake-up call:
1. We must set ambitious targets in line with current guidance
Every actor in the food and ag value chain needs to set ambitious net zero climate commitments in line with the Science Based Targets Initiative Forest, Land, and Agriculture Guidance and account for and report those emissions reductions according to the upcoming Greenhouse Gas Protocol Land Sector Removals Guidance. The Stocktake makes it clear that our current efforts are insufficient and we must increase the ambition of our commitments to a climate-resilient future. The sector needs to treat climate change like the existential - and holistically linked - threat that it is. Food and ag companies should look at these climate programs as an investment in climate risk mitigation and invest in them the same way they invest in other efforts to protect the company from other financial risks. These investments at the scale needed to create a resilient future are currently costly. But, when the primary emphasis is on the profit/loss statement at the expense of the climate impact, long term stability is sacrificed for the short-term economic benefit. In this case, business as usual results in a failure to meet the Paris goals and leaves us on a path to a dire future.
2. Climate commitments must be centered on the farmer
Every climate commitment and program in the food and ag sector should have the farmer/producer at its center. If companies within the ag and food sector do not work to cut on-farm emissions, the farmers at the beginning of the value chain will not be able to adapt to climate change. If climate conditions force the farmers and producers out of business, those companies will also fail. The world’s farmers are dealing with extreme climate events and corporate commitments cannot be achieved on the backs and bank accounts of these farmers. Those on the ground producing the world’s food supply should be fairly and justly compensated for their efforts to create a climate resilient sector. Particular attention should be paid to the smallholder farmers who are often overlooked and who disproportionately suffer the consequences of climate change.
3. We must support innovation in science and tech
Every advancement in increasing the world’s food supply has relied on investments in innovation and technology. These investments are a must for feeding a population growing toward 10 billion and doing so in a sustainable manner. We cannot continue to rely solely on technology that is no longer capable of adequately feeding even our current population. This is particularly true under changing climate conditions that negatively impact crop yields. Using the roadmap as a guide, we must continue to invest in innovations in plant breeding technologies to improve crop yields, create resilient crops, and create crops that better utilize nutrient inputs that would reduce emissions. Scaling the adoption of regenerative ag practices requires continued innovation in technologies that drive down the costs of implementing these programs such as advanced modeling tools, remote sensing technologies, and lower cost carbon measurement innovations.
The list of above is not exhaustive, but a starting point for improvement.
The First Global Stocktake shows that we are failing. We must do more. But this report is not the final grade. It is like the progress reports you used to get in the middle of the school term to let you know where you stood in class. We know where we stand and we have a roadmap for reaching the ultimate goal. Every acre, every ton, and every 0.1 degree matters. It is up to us to make the commitments and sacrifices necessary to create a climate resilient future.