At COP26 Action Will Speak Louder Than Words

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Credit: Compassion in World Farming / Richard Dunwoody

Glasgow gets a ‘thundering wake-up call’

For the next two weeks, Glasgow will become the centre of the world, or at least the epicentre of the battle for the planet. World leaders will converge on the ‘dear green place’ to try to pick a path toward a sustainable future. And so the stage is set for Scotland to host COP26, the next round of UN climate talks aimed at staving off a warming world. 

“Securing a brighter future for our children and future generations requires countries to take urgent action at home and abroad to turn the tide on climate change” is how Prime Minister, Boris Johnson put it in setting out the UK government’s agenda ahead of the gathering.

Seizing the moment together’ is very much at the heart of sentiments for organisers going into the conference. 

Yet a damning new United Nations (UN) report suggests that the reality is we’re failing to do just that. 

Pledges are not enough

National plans to cut carbon don’t go nearly far enough to avert dangerous climate change, according to the UN Environment Programme.

The Emissions Gap Report, which provides an overview of the difference between where greenhouse emissions are predicted to be in 2030 and where they need to be, puts the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. That is well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate.

A “thundering wake-up call” is how the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres described the report’s findings, reminding the world that humanity’s future depends on keeping global temperature increase to 1.5 °Celsius by 2030. 

With world leaders talking, near consensus amongst scientists about what needs to be done and newspaper headlines about floods, fires and other extreme weather events demonstrating that climate change is a ‘now’ problem, not some abstract future scenario, you could be forgiven for wondering why more isn’t being done. 

After all, through Covid, those same world leaders showed us how resolute they can be in taking action in the face of an immediate emergency; taking difficult and economically inconvenient decisions in the short term to address impending disaster.

That same resoluteness and immediacy of action has largely been absent in the world’s climate response. 

Our Food Systems Are Broken

Part of the reason for that lies in our general failure to recognise one of the biggest contributors to climate change: our food. 

As much as 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally are caused by our food and the way we produce it. The majority of this comes from agriculture, as well as deforestation to make way for new farmland. The livestock sector alone produces more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions of the world’s planes, trains and cars combined.

What this offers us all is a clear way of taking back control of the climate through our food choices: eating less meat and dairy, making sure any we do consume comes from planet-friendly organic and regenerative farming. Switching to plant-based milk in our coffee, cutting out meat – both red meat and poultry – on a regular basis. Choosing organic where you can. All these things have a big bearing on how successful we are at tackling not just climate change, but the other emergency of collapsing nature, the life-support system on which we all depend.  

What it also offers is a golden opportunity for world leaders to genuinely seize the moment by making food and farming a central part of the climate discussion in Glasgow. A whole host of dignitaries, including Joanna Lumley, Alan Titchmarsh and Stanley Johnson, have signed up to a media statement to be published in The Times today, calling on governments to act: “Global meat and dairy consumption must be greatly reduced if we are to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” and address climate change, they say. 

Ignore Facts At Our Peril

In the teeth of a crisis, now is not the time to ignore the scientific facts about food because it might not fit with political will or commercial interests. The decibels are rising on the need for action on diets, to address overconsumption of meat as well as global travel. Without it, our climate challenge will be made so much harder, if not impossible.

Yet could it be that our prime minister, prompted by the voice of the young, is about to embrace a climate-friendly food revolution?

Answering questions at a Downing Street meeting with children, organised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Boris Johnson reportedly said scientists are already developing plant-based alternatives to meat that could very soon become the norm: 

“I think that already science is developing meat substitutes that are basically engineered in a lab, that are very like meat and you won’t be able to tell the difference between a bio-engineered hamburger and – I’m serious – and a real hamburger. And that will be the future very soon” Johnson was reported by The Express to have said.

Whatever one makes of the PM’s take, what is clear is that action is needed not just on heat pumps, electric cars, low-carbon jet fuel and solar panels, but also on food. The issue of climate-busting food, particularly factory farmed meat and dairy, needs to be firmly on the agenda, in Glasgow and at future climate talks the world over. If ever there was a ready-made solution to tackling climate change, it would be ending factory farming and the associated overconsumption of meat. 

For our children’s sake, let’s hope that government gathering near the banks of the Clyde will seize this moment for action that is so necessary on all fronts. 

The world will be watching.

Note: A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 1st November, 2021 

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