Politics of Poverty

Climate pledges vs reality: agribusinesses come up short

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Agribusiness interests are a key driver of rainforest destruction.
Agribusiness interests are a key driver of rainforest destruction. Photo credit: CIPCA / Oxfam

An independent evaluation reveals lack of progress on commitments and lack of transparency.

Earlier this month, all eyes were on governments at the United Nations’ global climate negotiations (known as the Conference of Parties, or COP28). As the world decompresses from the drama—two weeks of political power plays and cajoling resulting in an historic (but toothless) agreement to move away from fossil fuels—our attention turns to a different set of climate pledges: those of the world’s largest agribusinesses.

The global food system accounts for 21-37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions so is critical in addressing the climate crisis. On December 21, Oxfam released an assessment by Climate Focus that evaluates seven of the world’s largest agribusinesses—Archer Daniels Midland, Barry Callebaut, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Company, Olam Group, and Wilmar International. The assessment examined the strength of their climate commitments—focusing on implementation—and the extent to which they report on progress. The companies were selected based on their large size and influence in the global agriculture sector: four are reported to control 70% of the world’s trade in agricultural commodities. Although results were mixed, the companies performed poorly across the board, demonstrating wide gaps between their promises and what they are actually doing to slow climate change.

The main findings were as follows.

Company climate commitments do not reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. Only one of the assessed companies has a target aligned with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius that has been validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). SBTi sets the highest available standard for corporate climate commitments, and specific guidelines on forest, land, and agriculture targets (SBTi FLAG). SBTi FLAG is an essential tool for accelerating decarbonization. An SBTi-validated target indicates that a company has a well-planned, measurable, timebound decarbonization strategy that is based on robust climate science and includes regular reports on progress. None of the companies assessed meets the full SBTi Net Zero Standard nor has targets aligned with SBTi FLAG, though several have committed to setting and validating targets within two years.

Disclosure of climate-emissions data has become more transparent and comprehensive over time. All of the assessed companies disclose data for some or all of their commodity supply chains, including major commodities that put forests at risk (soy, palm oil, cocoa, coffee). The transparency of plans and progress across supply chains is not uniform, however. Companies should strive for full traceability—tracking products from source to consumer—across all of their supply chains and communicate their plans for achieving this. This is key to building trust and accountability among partners and enabling stakeholders to hold companies to account.

All companies support some of their suppliers to engage in sustainable agriculture, but they do not do so consistently across supply chains, and they reveal varying degrees of meaningful engagement. Companies can and should work with suppliers to develop climate-action plans and support producers to adopt low-carbon emission practices and build long-term climate resilience. None of the seven companies assessed were consistently responsive to the needs of small-scale producers nor sensitive to gender. All companies have clear supplier-engagement codes of conduct, but many are vague about how they manage non-compliance with their environmental and human rights policies. Food and agriculture systems are already being strained by climate impacts, and as they worsen, threats to the livelihoods of small-scale producers are intensifying. Company policies need to ensure and enable compliance without employing harsh measures that further endanger the ability of small-scale producers to make a living.

Several companies engage in external lobbying activities that contradict their stated climate goals. The assessment found that none of the assessed companies has an explicit commitment to conduct external engagement or lobbying activities in line with Paris Agreement goals. Worse, some are actively blocking and obstructing climate progress by opposing policies that would enable climate action. This is not the time or place for such duplicity. The world is running out of time to limit runaway climate change and its devastating effects on people and the environment.

No companies committed to a phaseout of fossil fuel use across all their operations. Industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on these dirty fuels; this sector alone consumes up to 30 percent of the world’s total energy. While the assessment showed evidence of piecemeal efforts to decarbonize energy sources for facilities or transportation fuels, no company pledged to end its fossil fuel dependence. Fossil fuels must be phased out rapidly and completely to avoid catastrophic outcomes. We cannot afford to let agribusinesses drag their feet.

Slow progress is a prescription for disaster. Major agribusinesses have a key role to play in transitioning to a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable global food system. Oxfam urges agribusinesses to phase out fossil fuels, accelerate climate progress, increase transparency, support small-scale producers, and lead the way to an equitable, climate-resilient future for all.


Note: This climate assessment accompanies Oxfam’s series of agribusiness scorecards that measure agribusiness policies and implementation plans across five environmental and human rights issue areas: women’s economic empowerment, land, climate change, small-scale producers, and transparency and accountability. It complements the latest scorecard—Moving the Middle; Oxfam’s Behind the Brands assessment of the global agribusiness sector —which was released in March 2023.

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