We need to turn government pledges on nature at COP into urgent actionLuke Pritchard, Deputy Director, Nature Based Solutions
COP28 has seen promising pledges on creating resilient, climate-friendly food systems. But business needs clear and transparent policy and the redirection of harmful agriculture subsidies if the massive mitigation potential of land and nature is to be fulfilled.
The recent Global Stocktake Synthesis Report makes it clear that we are dangerously off track to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, emphasizing that ‘’much more action, on all fronts and by all actors, is needed now’. Nowhere is this urgency more evident than in the realm of land, nature, and agriculture, where achieving net-zero by 2030 is imperative – demanding a swifter response than any other sector.
COP28 this year has already seen some promising pledges, but these need a clear path to action. The UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action was a positive signal that countries recognize the need to create more resilient, climate-friendly food systems for both mitigation and adaptation purposes. Leaders from 134 countries signed the declaration to integrate food systems into their climate plans by 2025.
But such pledges risk being meaningless without clear targets and an accountability mechanism for government signatories. To many watching, the declaration is light on specific targets. Businesses need clear and transparent policy guidance to instil confidence, and governments must act with a heightened sense of urgency to adopt domestic policies that accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.
We need to turn COP pledges into action
While more recognition of the role of food systems in climate is welcome, the tangible impact of past pledges remains elusive. At COP26 in Glasgow, over 100 countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030. But to date, scant progress has been made. Indeed, Nationally Determined Contributions, which are national plans containing targets on emissions cuts, largely lack the necessary ambition to fulfil the pledge of ending deforestation by 2030. Alarmingly, primary tropical forest loss actually surged last year and there are increasing signs we are falling further behind on these goals.
This lack of focus on nature and agriculture is holding the world back on meeting climate targets. A third of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to humans come from the food system. And yet, despite having the greatest mitigation potential, agriculture and land-use receives disproportionately little financial backing — less than 4% of total mitigation and dual benefits finance.
This can, in part, be tackled by unlocking more finance from the private sector by building confidence in high-integrity voluntary carbon markets to protect and restore nature. This is why, during COP28, We Mean Business Coalition joined with other leading NGOs in urging for the role of carbon markets as a transparent, high integrity part of broader climate action. Through our flagship event with VCMI, which you can watch here, we also explored the path to building business confidence to invest.
However, the wider transformation of our food system hinges on governments’ capacity to wield their influential policy levers for innovation. Governments allocate a staggering $635bn every year to agricultural subsidies that often serve to perpetuate detrimental environmental practices, drive deforestation, and place our food system on a high-emission and low-resilience trajectory. These subsidies can – and must – be redirected to foster a resilient, low-emission food system that supports farmers, conserves biodiversity, and feeds a growing world population.
To get there we need governments to create the right conditions for change. In 2021, the UN published a report arguing that overhauling subsidies could “be a game changer”, helping to eradicate hunger and poverty, improve nutrition, reduce global heating and restore nature.
An urgent need for policies that support climate goals
In March 2023, We Mean Business Coalition signed a letter to the European Parliament re-iterating our support for a robust outcome to the EU Nature Restoration Law negotiations. To transform supply chains, end deforestation, reduce emissions from food production, and create resilient food systems, we need regulatory systems that inspire confidence from the financial sector and unlock innovation and investments from companies.
While governments have been slow to act, there are glimmers of hope and high-level political resolve has proven to be effective in addressing the land and nature crisis. In 2019, Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil grower, introduced a moratorium on new plantations. By 2021, this had led to a drop in the deforestation rate by 75%, its lowest level since monitoring began in 1990, according to Indonesia’s government.
In Brazil, another stronghold of biodiversity and ecological richness, the rate of deforestation was reduced by 34% in just six months thanks to the implementation of policies by President Lula. Recent research has shown that nature-based solutions could reduce 781 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) on average per year in Brazil over the next 30 years, demonstrating the powerful potential of political resolve in addressing nature loss.
And in the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act has earmarked almost $20 billion to assist farmers in adopting climate-friendly practices, providing a blueprint for how agricultural subsidy reform can be successfully implemented.
Problems only policies can solve
While the political commitment at COP to integrate food systems into national climate plans is a positive step, immediate action will be crucial. Countries must urgently implement policies today to overhaul the way our food is grown, transported, and consumed. We cannot afford to wait for another two years to learn about their plans; the time for decisive action is now.
COP28 rightfully emphasizes the imperative of fossil fuel phase-out, but let’s not overlook the fact that nature, land, and agriculture hold the key to delivering the impactful emissions reductions today. And in this domain, governments wield significant influence to make a substantial impact. It is vital they seize this opportunity and take bold action to set us on the right track.