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COP27: Meaningful Progress and Missed Opportunities on Food System Emissions

man sits at a fruit stand
Photo: Carlo “Granchius” Bonini https://www.flickr.com/photos/granchius/2709808416

According to data developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, global food systems are responsible for nearly a third of total GHG emissions. However, world leaders and policymakers have been slow to focus on food systems as a priority area for deep decarbonization.

When leaders met in Egypt for this year’s COP27 climate conference, many observers were hopeful that the role of food systems in global climate change — both as major emission sources and as opportunities for significant cuts — would finally be addressed in the high-level climate negotiations.

Apart from exciting new additions to the Blue Zone and references to food and agriculture in the final draft cover text, what exactly did policymakers commit to — or avoid — during the COP27 deliberations? And did the conference fully deliver on its billing as the first “food COP”?

A missed opportunity

Going into this year’s conference, one of the most important developments related to food systems and climate action centered on the efforts to define a successor to the Korinivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA).

The Korinivia agreement was finalized in 2017 during COP23 and was the first official UN recognition of agriculture as a critical component and potential tool in international climate change efforts.

With the KJWA now about to expire, many observers and policy advocates signed an open letter urging world leaders at COP27 to adopt a new agreement focused on implementing the KJWA findings to cut food-related emissions and help create “sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems” aligned with 1.5-degree climate pathways.

But many experts and food-climate advocates expressed disappointment with the resulting draft agreement, which failed to retain language around “sustainable food systems” that would have helped ensure an ambitious and holistic approach to mitigating agrifood system emissions.

This language was scaled back in response to resistance from the G77 group of countries and others. China wanted to avoid introducing new, less-defined food systems references, and the US preferred to focus on supply-side solutions that steer clear of politically sensitive issues, such as sustainable diets and nutrition.

The result is a new four-year mandate to focus on the implementation of KJWA actions with a narrow focus on agriculture and food security, rather than the hoped-for broader food systems approach.

While this mandate will certainly prove important, there’s general agreement from many civil society and policy experts that the COP27 negotiators failed to fully seize the opportunity to re-center global food system transformations as a major tool to address our pressing climate and food crises.

Other food-related initiatives and developments

Fortunately, there were several other food-related initiatives and announcements that may prove to be exciting in the future.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Egyptian Presidency overseeing this year’s COP announced the Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation initiative to accelerate investment in food systems aligned with a resilient, food-secure 1.5-degree pathway.

Similarly, the WHO, FAO, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition launched the Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition to provide planning and technical support for governments, agrifood industries, and financial institutions to design policies and action at the intersection of climate and global nutrition.

Thirteen countries now recognize and endorse the Breakthrough Agenda, a plan to accelerate the decarbonization of power systems, road transport, steel, hydrogen and the agriculture sector. The plan aims to boost investment in agricultural research, development and demonstration to meet the twin challenges of food insecurity and a climate-friendly food system.

The US also launched the Global Fertilizer Challenge to help tackle the global shortages related to the war in Ukraine. The program doubles the initial investments and reach of the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate initiative, speeding up funding for climate-sensitive and sustainable food systems over the next three years.

A new roadmap for food system transformations

Perhaps most exciting, however, is the FAO’s commitment to produce a roadmap for the food and agricultural sectors to decarbonize in alignment with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5-degrees.

The plan will seek to provide decision-ready data and clarity to companies, investors, and policymakers to enable a just transition within agriculture and food systems.

Set to be released by COP28 next year, the FAO’s roadmap could serve a similar function as the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook analyses, which have helped drive investments and policy decisions in the ongoing transition to low-carbon energy systems.

In order to be truly effective, this new food systems roadmap should be accompanied by efforts to define an internationally standardized greenhouse-gas accounting framework for national food systems, which will help countries better measure, manage, and mitigate their food-related emissions.

The accounting framework would also support the ability of national governments to design and submit enhanced nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement to include food system transformations that address climate change.

Citizens and stakeholder groups will also be able to leverage the roadmap to understand and compare the food and agricultural emissions footprints of different countries and regions and hold leaders to account for perceived shortcomings within their food system climate action plans.

In the wake of the narrowly defined Korinivia successor, each of these initiatives should — if successfully funded and implemented — help to further connect global climate mitigation and adaptation efforts to facilitate urgent food system transformations.

The verdict

Taken together, it seems more than fair to remember COP27 as the first conference to fully recognize and include discussions of agriculture and food systems at the highest levels of international climate change negotiations.

While the successor to the Korinivia agreement may lack the scope and ambition that many observers hoped for, the inclusion of food-related initiatives across the conference agenda — from the floor of the Food Systems Pavilion to the major new programs by the FAO — reflects an important recognition of the inextricable connections between our global climate and food crises.

But as with the long history of international climate commitments, the exact wording of agreements and the exciting announcements of new initiatives matter far less than the more difficult work of implementation, coordination, and accountability.

Policymakers and stakeholders from across the energy, climate, and food and agricultural sectors will need to build off the achievements of COP27 to further accelerate new mitigation and adaptation efforts, ensure a just transition that empowers smallholder farmers and includes appropriate demand-side actions in developed countries, and help create the sustainable, equitable, and climate-resilient food systems needed to meet our future food and climate demands.

Benjamin Ritter is a graduate student in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Kevin Karl is a research associate at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, where he focuses on the intersection of food systems and climate change as a member of the Food Climate Partnership.

The Food Climate Partnership is a consortium of scientists and policy practitioners from Columbia Climate School’s Center for Climate Systems Research and Center on Global Energy Policy, the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, and New York University’s School of Environmental Studies. The group supports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its environmental statistics work.

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