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I remember it like yesterday: thirty years ago, and my first trek up the Cairngorms. My best pal Richard and I were keen to get our first glimpse of some of Scotland’s finest mountain wildlife. Not long before, my pal had spent six months in bed with a back injury. Our plan was to take the ski lift, but the weather put paid to that. We were torn. We really wanted to go, but would he make it? Fired up, we made the yomp. Our reward was stunning views of one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds: delicate finch-like Snow Buntings that look like snowflakes when they flutter.

Snow Bunting | Credit: Christoph Moning | Macaulay Library

Scroll forward thirty years and my pal still has back problems and Snow Buntings are in trouble from climate change. You see, they are birds that nest in the cool uplands. Just as warming melts those iconic snow-covered mountain tops, so it pushes the buntings further up the slope in search of suitable breeding habitat. Chances are they’ll run out of mountain and be gone. 

Thirty years ago, climate chaos was an emerging theme. The first UN climate change COP, or ‘Conference of the Parties’ was still a couple of years away.  

Wake-up call

Now we’re starting to see how climate change affects not only snow caps and pretty mountain birds but us all. Floods, coastal erosion, forest fires, damage to buildings, and the prevalence of diseases are all set to increase. Record-breaking heatwaves in Europe led to calls by labourers and factory workers to be furloughed.  Prospects are that global heating could trigger crop failures and the mass migration of people driven from their homelands, leading to widespread misery and disruption. The world is waking up. 

Hopes of averting planetary crisis converged on Dubai and the 28th gathering of policymakers on climate. This one has been the biggest COP ever. Getting on for 100,000 delegates – enough to fill Wembley Stadium – have poured in. 

It’s been a paradox of a meeting. Fossil fuels contribute over 75% of global emissions, yet this one was hosted by the UAE, a major oil-producing nation.

Elephant in the room

In what may well be seen as a mixed bag of a conference, a long-ignored stumbling block to climate success has been brought out of the shadows: food. Our food globally is responsible for a third of emissions. Of these, animal products account for almost 60%. To help put this into context, animal farming accounts for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s planes, trains, and cars put together. At 27 previous COPs, doing something about it has been the elephant in the room. 


Encouraging then, that COP28 opened with a Presidency Declaration on food systems, farming, and climate. Described as a ‘landmark’ statement of intent, at least 158 countries have signed on, including the UK, EU, and USA. It affirms that tackling climate change means that food consumption and production “must urgently adapt and transform”. It forms a commitment to integrate food and farming into future climate negotiations. It also sets its sights on 2030 and the culmination of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), making the connection that tackling food and climate together are essential if targets are to be met.  

COP28’s food declaration is a welcome development, and one that has been nearly thirty years in the making. It was heralded by more than 650 food-related events held over 12 days. Much noise and expectation has been created. Success will be defined by the level of ambition that now transpires. 

Stefanos Fotiou, Head of the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub speaking at COP28 UAE

Big change starts with recognition

Stefanos Fotiou of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) charged with taking forward the outcomes of the recent UN Food Systems Summit saw it second only to the Paris Agreement itself where the world agreed to the climate treaty: He took to X (formerly Twitter) saying, “it is important to stress the need for urgent transformative climate action now. Key to this, in addition to fossil fuels phase out, is the reduction of emissions from agrifood systems.”

Also significant was the release of a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) looking at plant-based, cell-based, and fermentation-based alternatives to conventional animal products in addressing the adverse impacts of animal agriculture. According to the report, these show “strong potential for reduced environmental impacts compared to many conventional animal products… [and] have the potential to drastically reduce harm to animals”.

I’ve always believed that the first step to big change is recognition of the problem. 

Longhorn cattle at Knepp Wildland estate, England | Credit: Philip Lymbery

Now, after thirty years of absence, food systems as a key driver to climate change has officially been recognised. Getting the world off fossil-fuel addicted factory farming, with its fertilisers, cages, and live animal transport, together with reducing consumption of conventional animal products, is a must-do for a climate-friendly world. The future for Snow Buntings, snow-covered mountains, and our children depends on it. 

Main Image Credit: Surasak Suwanmake

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