Politics of Poverty

Where’s the science? How companies can help bring it back to meet the 2°C challenge

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The food and beverage industry have a great deal to lose if ambitious action is not taken to address climate change. Photo: http://bit.ly/1hCcpXg

For too long companies’ emissions targets have been based on expedience and public relations concerns – not science. If we’re going to meet the global climate challenge, this must change.

Aditi Sen is a Policy Advisor on Climate Change at Oxfam America.

We are 2°C (3.6°F) away from a different world. No kidding.

It is widely regarded that limiting the average global surface temperature from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) over the pre-industrial average is critical to avoiding dangerous changes to the earth’s climate and thus also critical to preventing catastrophic consequences for people, particularly the poorest and the most vulnerable.

However, the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that at current rates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we will hurtle past the 2°C threshold in a few decades. For the world to have a realistic chance of staying below 2°C of warming, the report estimated that we had a budget of 1000 gigatonnes of carbon emissions, and more than half of that has been spent.

The world now has a finite carbon budget.  Blowing this budget would mean that global temperatures could increase by more than 2° C, exposing the world to more severe forest fires, extreme weather, rising sea levels, and other climate impacts. This is why any efforts to curb GHG emissions must be judged by whether they are robust enough to keep us within our shrinking carbon budget.

At the COP21 in Paris, we expect national governments to establish an ambitious and long-term global agreement to meet the 2°C goal. However, businesses also have an important role to play in achieving this goal as they drive a significant proportion of global emissions through their operations and supply chains. Though an increasing number of companies set GHG reduction targets, typically these targets are arbitrary and not ambitious enough to meet global climate change mitigation goals. For too long, companies have set targets that are guided by expedience and public relations concerns.

But that era is over.

It is no longer enough to set arbitrary targets. Emission reduction targets need to be meaningful and driven by science. Targets are considered “science-based” if they are in line with the level of emissions reductions necessary to stay with the carbon budget as set out by the IPCC.

The good news is that the tide is slowly beginning to turn. Last year, after over 230,000 petitions from consumers who took action as part of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign to get the world’s 10 biggest food and beverage companies to do more to tackle climate change, General Mills and Kellogg announced major new commitments to address climate change. This included commitments to set science-based targets for GHG reductions throughout their operations and supply chains. General Mills’ bold target for cutting emissions by 28 percent by 2025, released last month, stemmed from this commitment.

Now several more food and beverage companies have stepped up to the 2°C challenge. Others such as Mars, Nestle and Unilever have also made commitments to setting science based targets in the run-up to Paris.

These commitments by the food sector matter because this sector is a significant driver of global emissions.  The agriculture, forests and land use sector contributes 25 percent of GHG emissions globally, yet these emissions often go unchecked in agricultural supply chains. As food companies begin to set science-based targets, we hope it will facilitate a genuine shift in how the climate footprint associated with upstream agricultural activities in the food and beverage sector is measured and managed.

While the momentum behind science-based targets is something to celebrate, the food and beverage industry still has a ways to go. Companies like The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Associated British Foods (ABF), Mondelez and Danone have yet to make commitments to setting science-based targets. More worryingly, ABF, Mondelez and Danone continue to set only intensity-based reduction targets, or targets that do not extend across their business. Where targets are intensity-based, they can disguise the fact that absolute emissions might actually be increasing, especially as production expands.

Responding to the climate challenge means that companies will have to move away from business as usual. And while it means making some tough choices, it is also an opportunity for companies to stand out as climate leaders and set the course for a transformation towards a sustainable low carbon future. We hope more companies will step up to this challenge in the run-up to Paris.

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