Photo credit: UNEP 2021 Emissions Gap Report

In this final week of the year I found myself, likely along with many others, reflecting deeply on the state of multiple sustainability issues – particularly related to the food system and climate.

My reflections began when I pulled out a deliberately stashed-away copy of the front page of The New York Times from December 13, 2015, which sported the uplifting headline “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Deal.”

I recalled the optimism of that moment, which was clearly evident in the accompanying photo of several of the participants, and the excitement over the fact that nearly 200 nations were required to take some level of action to cut emissions going forward – as well as the notion that the Paris Agreement could lead to a monumental shift in global economic policies to reverse course on future global emissions. 

And I quickly found myself wondering how the individuals in that picture would have felt if they had the ability to look six years ahead and see where the world stands today on the state of the climate.  Probably not that great.

Moving on, I re-reviewed an excellent piece by Andrew Winston from December of 2018 entitled The Story of Sustainability in 2018:  We Have About 12 Years Left.

In it, Winston began by noting that 2018 brought extreme change in the form of weather and environmental ecosystems, political winds and power, and in the expectations of business – and he correctly pointed out that such changes provided “incredible clarity” about the scale of the world’s challenges and opportunities.

Significantly, Winston stated that “the world’s scientists sounded a final alarm on climate” and as a result, we have a 12-year window to change course on emissions.  Citing the IPCC’s 2018 report, he noted that the world would have to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to stem some of the worst effects of global warming, and completely decarbonize by 2050.

He pointed to several warning signs, including melting ice sheets, sea level rise, “biblical” weather devastation in the form of heat waves, wildfires (including the destruction of the entire town of Paradise, CA) and flooding, dying coral reefs, declining species (insects, bees, and kelp forests), and Capetown’s severe water shortage.

And importantly, he connected these ecosystem indicators to society and business in a provocative way – reminding us that “society will not thrive in a world where entire pillars of planetary support are collapsing” and further, “if society can’t thrive, neither can business.” 

I recalled how poignant I found his article at the time – thinking it was certainly a motivational primer for the Decade of Action.  And yet three years later, it’s hard not to dwell on the recurring climate-driven weather devastation events that citizens around the world continue to experience – including prolonged drought in the West, the Portland heat dome event, massive wildfires (such as California’s Dixie fire which burned nearly a million acres, and the fire which destroyed the entire town of Lytton, B.C.), damaging hurricanes and cyclones, flooding in China and Sudan, and drought-related famine in Madagascar – and not to question the world’s lack of progress in addressing climate change.  As writers at The Guardian noted in an excellent piece in October, the climate disaster is here, and the Earth is already becoming unlivable: will governments act to stop the climate disaster from growing worse?

To be sure, Winston also noted several positives in his piece, including a shift in the financial sector toward viewing climate and sustainability as core value issues (clearly recognizing climate risk), rapid growth in clean technology, a wake-up call to the plastics crisis, further greening of supply chains, and the growth in meatless options. 

These are indeed positives to build on, and while we’ve seen the start of a transformational shift in the financial sector to decarbonization since 2018, it is essential that we ramp up bold commitments and action – especially among companies and governments – for transformational food system change and climate change mitigation.    

Because when it comes to food system transformation, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, and progress on climate, the world is not on track, and we’re not moving fast enough to get on track.  Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned in July that the world is “seriously off track” to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030.

I think it’s safe to say that we are seeing the impact of being far off track on sustainability and climate goals – and to Winston’s point, we are receiving numerous wake-up calls supporting the idea that society will not thrive in a world where entire pillars of planetary support are collapsing.

Key Reports, Key Insights

Aside from the many visible signals of climate change mentioned above, 2021 was filled with excellent reports giving us more indications of the need for deep, urgent change to rebuild a sustainable food system and cut emissions.

On the food side, UNEP provided a valuable update to food waste figures in the Food Waste Index Report 2021.  The report noted that 931 million tonnes of food waste occurred in 2019, indicating that 17% of global food production may go to waste annually.  Further, the authors reported that food waste at the consumer level (household and foodservice) appears to be more than twice the FAO estimate from 2011.  

Also, in a new report, Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, WWF estimated that 1.2 billion tonnes of food are lost on farms – amounting to just over 15% of food production.  Through this research, WWF estimated that the combined total of annual food loss and waste is closer to 40% of production (compared to the often-cited one-third figure) – and accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

And while these reports provided new insights into how much food we are losing and wasting, FAO’s annual report on The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World (SOFI 2021) revealed just how far off track we are from effectively feeding the global population.  

With disruptions from conflict, climate change, and the pandemic, the authors noted that between 720 and 811 million global citizens faced hunger in 2020 – up by roughly 160 million over 2019.  Further, more than 2.3 billion people (about 30% of the global population) lacked access to adequate food in 2020 – up 320 million from the year before.  In addition, the world is not on track to meet targets for any of the specified nutrition indicators by 2030. 

On climate, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its State of the Global Climate 2020 report, which provided a host of dire signals related to emissions-driven warming:

  • Concentrations of the major greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise despite a brief reduction due to the economic slowdown from the pandemic
  • The global mean temperature for 2020 was 1.2°C over the baseline 1850-1900 level, making 2020 one of three warmest years on record
  • The past six years (2015-2020) rank as the warmest on record
  • A record temperature for north of the Arctic Circle was set (38°C)
  • The trend in sea-level rise is accelerating
  • Ocean heat storage and acidification is increasing (which in turn reduces the ocean’s ability to reduce global warming)

The report also cited many high-impact events such as widespread flooding, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, tropical cyclones and extratropical storms.  In addition, it reminded us that climate change puts achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals at risk (for example, the loss of species and ecosystems threatens food security, extreme weather and climate events threaten human health and water security, and all such impacts can reduce overall security by increasing the potential for mass migration and conflict.

Notably, the WMO reported that there is a 40% chance that global temperature would temporarily hit the critical 1.5°C mark at some point in the next five years. 

UN Secretary General Guterres referred to the report as “frightening” and called 2021 the “make it or break it” year for climate action.  Significantly, he noted that “we know what needs to be done to cut emissions and adapt to climate change” – but while we have the technology to succeed, “current levels of climate ambition and action are significantly short of what is needed.”

And he’s absolutely correct – we have an ambition gap, and an action gap.

In its 2021 report (referred to as a “code red” for humanity by Secretary General Guterres), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided a wealth of key takeaways that serve as powerful action calls:

  • Human influence has warmed the planet at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years
  • Atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher in 2019 than at any time in at least 2 million years
  • Global surface temperature has risen faster since 1970 than at any time in the last 800,000 years
  • Climate change is already impacting every inhabited region around the world
  • Global warming of 1.5°C and 2.0°C will be exceeded in this century barring deep cuts in CO2 and other emissions in the coming decades
  • With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes get larger
  • Many changes (ex. to oceans, ice sheets, sea level) due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia

In the 2021 Emissions Gap Report, The Heat Is On – A world of climate promises not yet delivered, UNEP pointed to the constant reminders that climate change is here (i.e. it’s not a future problem) and indicated that the world is not doing enough to address it.  The authors projected that updated nationally determined commitments (NDCS) and pledges for 2030 would reduce 2030 emissions by only 7.5% by 2030, while a 30% reduction is needed to limit global warming to 2.0°C, and a 50% reduction is needed to meet the 1.5°C threshold. 

Last, on biodiversity, in a February report (Food system impacts on biodiversity loss: Three levers for food system transformation in support of nature), Tim Benton and others pointed to the acceleration of biodiversity loss around the globe, noting that biodiversity is declining at a rate faster than at any point in human history – with roughly a quarter of plant and animal species currently under threat of extinction.  Citing the global food system as the primary driver of biodiversity decline, the authors stated that without reforming the food system, “further destruction of ecosystems and habitats will threaten our ability to sustain the human population” – a point which underscores Winston’s theme of being unable to thrive in a world where planetary support mechanisms are collapsing.

These are but a few of several excellent, highly-provocative calls for urgent action to rebuild the global food system and achieve sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to stem the increase in global warming.

The Need for Speed

As I reflect on all of the key signals from 2021 regarding the need for urgent food system and climate change action, I come back to a key question: 

Why are the needed change actions not moving faster? 

Especially when we know that the need for change is great, we know what needs to be done, and we know that there is great opportunity for immense financial, environmental, and social rewards.

And I come back to Paul Polman’s excellent commentary from the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in July, where he noted that it was “mind-boggling” that we weren’t moving faster on transformational food system change when a) our current system threatens our very existence, and b) the economic rewards for developing the needed sustainable food system are enormous.

Polman noted that it is impossible to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goal and the Sustainable Development Goals without changing the food system, and ultimately questioned whether we had sufficient willpower – whether we cared enough – to lead that change.

And I think that’s the key.  Very simply, we need to show that we truly care about the health of people and planet. 

We need to move faster on tangible actions that will create a sustainable food system and reduce environmental externalities and climate-impacting emissions. 

We need to think in transformational terms, not incremental.

We need to embrace the opportunity that the necessary change presents.

As we enter 2022, year two of the Decade of Action, I find myself thinking that we’re three years past Winston’s paper from December 2018, and we’re now down to eight years to meet the Sustainable Development Goals – which are heavily tied to food system transformation and a strong start to reducing emissions to mitigate global warming. 

And with just 8 years remaining to 2030, every year that goes by in which we don’t rein in emissions means we have to do more the next year – and we run closer to irreversible tipping points. 

Winston’s point from 2018 – the idea that society will not thrive in a world where entire pillars of planetary support are collapsing – is worth repeating because three years later we seem to simply be further down the path of collapse despite repeated signals of climate-led weather devastation which wholly clarifies the need for transformational change. 

A New Question

Back in October I wrote of the inspirational aspects of the high-level global food system dialogue and suggested that the key question for all of us to ask regarding leading transformational food system and climate change efforts is:  How can I help?

As we close out 2021, I think of Antonio Guterres’ comment that 2021 is the “make it or break it year” for climate action.  That’s the way we need to be thinking.  Every year is pivotal.  Every day is pivotal. 

And as I reflect further, I think the natural follow-up question for all of us to embrace is:  How can I help lead food system transformation and climate change efforts faster?