Specifically, the plan is to prevent temperatures rising more than 2oC over pre-industrial levels – that’s the point when, to paraphrase, ‘all hell breaks loose’. In that scenario, the food system by most accounts will start to fall apart; though there are signs that the seams are already being stretched.
Indeed, the deal struck in Paris refers to “safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change”. Ideally, this will mean holding temperature rises at no more than 1.5oC – which is the deal’s aspirational - as opposed to binding - target.
Thank goodness, at least, that we have a plan in place. It took a couple of decades but we’ve got there. Phew. And critically we’ve got there in advance of the US elections (Donald Trump had threatened to “cancel” the agreement should he win the keys to the White House this week). Double phew.
But don’t get too comfortable just yet. As it stands, the commitments in the deal will see us shoot through that 2oC ceiling. To keep temperatures in check, global emissions should be no more than 42 gigatonnes by 2030. However, forecasts published last week by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) suggest they’ll reach 54 to 56 gigatonnes – that translates to temperature rises of between 2.9oC and 3.4oC by 2100.
That, according to the UN, doesn’t bear thinking about. The loss of biodiversity natural resources as well as the economic fallout will be hard enough to cope with, but there will also be growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict. “None of this will be the result of bad weather,” noted the head of UN Environment Erik Solheim in his foreword to UNEP’s report. “It will be the result of bad choices by governments, private sector and individual citizens.”
UNEP offers up some solutions for plugging this gaping emissions gap, including the role of energy efficiency. Changes to consumption patterns are mentioned in passing, but they are far from prominent. The paper is, of course, covering the actions between now and 2030, but putting consumption to one side for now could be short-sighted.
More and more consumers are switching some of their meat and dairy products with plant-based alternatives. Meat and dairy firms have spotted this as a trend rather than a fad – this year dairy giant Danone gobbled up soy milk manufacturer WhiteWave, whilst US meatpacker Tyson Foods bought a stake in plant-based meat startup Beyond Meat. This kind of activity will increase, but will it be fast enough to shift consumption at the scale required to curb emissions?
Legislation would speed things up. Indeed, regulators will want to note the research published last year by Chatham House, which showed that shifting global demand for meat and dairy products is “central to achieving climate goals”.
“If the energy sector is successfully decarbonised by 2050, our diets can make the difference between the two-degree scenario in which dangerous climate change is averted and the four-degree scenario described by the World Bank as one of ‘cataclysmic’ climate change,” noted the UK think tank’s expert LauraWellesley.
Carbon labels have been tried, whilst carbon taxes on foods have been mooted. So far, however, most governments have been reluctant to wade into the livestock consumption debate. But not all: Denmark and China are among those currently dipping their toes in the water.
Research due to be published later today by the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food will offer governments yet more food for thought – the researchers have calculated the impact that taxes on high carbon foods could have on emissions and health. The idea of fiscal measures in a bid to shift diets can be hard to swallow, but successful sugar taxes could certainly be a sweetener.