Ruth Davis, Senior Associate at Smith School of Enterprise and Environment in Oxford
As COP28 closes, many may be coming away feeling deflated after the fights around fossil fuel phase out. But COP28 broke some ground on food systems and nature, which have both been edging closer to the centre of gravity at climate summits after decades on the sidelines.
In the negotiating room
Nature has made its way from a footnote to a prominent part of key negotiated outcomes. The target agreed in Glasgow, COP26 to protect and restore forests by 2030 is now firmly part of the formal negotiations via the Global Stocktake, which should guide how countries will upgrade their new climate plans. What’s more, the historic biodiversity goals agreed in Montreal in 2022 also got a well deserved place in the text, meaning we will see bridges built between climate and biodiversity action plans. Climate and nature are two sides of the same coin, what’s more we cannot succeed without the rights, knowledge and agency of Indigenous Peoples, who protect an astonishing 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
But the road for food in the negotiations remains slower and bumpier. While a third of global GHGs, for many developing countries, food and farming are at the core of their development goals and crucial to the livelihoods of millions. With richer nations still not doing their fair share of emissions cuts, the longtail of the food price crisis, many of these countries are reluctant to sign off on agricultural emissions cuts. But making sure their food systems are resilient to climate change is more politically palatable. Perhaps in time, we can convince big agri-power houses like Brazil, Indonesia and Argentina that there is an equitable way for them to tackle emissions from food. Family-farmers around the world are leading the way, working with and not against nature, in ways that help protect crops and livestock from the impacts of extreme weather.
Promising moves on the political stage
Despite the contained references to food in the negotiations, a cacophony of announcements could still be heard on the Leaders and Ministerial stages. 150+ Leaders signed up to the Emirates Declaration, where governments promised to put food into new climate plans that must land in 2025. If the Declaration sent a signal to companies and investors that food was the next frontier of climate action, then the signal was made even clearer by a smaller, progressive set of countries. Ministers from Brazil, Rwanda, Norway and Sierra Leone stepped forward to outline what a good food and climate plan would look like by forming the ACF or Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation.
More signals followed, with the launch of a 1.5 aligned roadmap by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). An imperfect tool already in need of some serious changes (especially on nature), but it puts business and governments on notice who can no longer ignore food in their net-zero plans.
For forests, the continued integrity crisis in the carbon markets led to a finance crunch. Standing forests risk being cut off from an immediate, albeit imperfect, source of money with no alternatives available. Showcasing that carbon markets don’t always have to be the solution, Brazil announced its intention to create a ‘Tropical Forests Forever Facility’ to pool sovereign wealth fund resources and make payments to countries for keeping low deforestation rates. It’s just an idea and in need of a good diplomacy plan, but it makes us look beyond the carbon markets and ask, what else is out there?
Because coming out of COP28 it’s still hard to ignore the yawning gap between ambition on food and nature, and the finance to achieve it. There’s limited money on the table right now. Finance packages for some forest countries like Ghana were announced totalling $400million. But the gap stands at an astonishing $700 billion per year, with large chunks needing to go directly to Indigenous Peoples.
It’s a similar situation for food, where we need to shift money away from big agriculture into the pockets of family farmers. These unsung heroes of our food system provide a third of the world’s food, but only receive 0.3% of climate finance.
Ultimately, what this COP was lacking was enough political leadership and ingenuity to find new solutions to old challenges. Land and the people on it provide far more services than our energy systems. Storing and capturing carbon, yes: but also protecting wildlife, helping us adapt to climate impacts and sustaining the livelihoods of millions. We can’t just copy and paste from the energy and infrastructure playbook, but we also need to make sure money is flowing now: which means using our imaginations and being willing to compromise.
We have two years before COP30 in Brazil, when countries put forward their new climate plans and funding. With Brazil a global powerhouse on food and nature and turning heads in the negotiations, we should be in good hands.
For those of us who champion food and nature in climate action, we’ve come a long way. But there is no substitute for concrete timetables and targets for protecting and restoring nature, taking fossil fuels out of the food system, radically reducing methane emissions and cutting food loss and waste. And we won’t get these unless we fund solutions on the ground at the scale we need. So let’s not get too comfortable: it’s time to crack on.