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The public want action on climate change. The food industry must respond with both urgency and care

The public want action now to address the climate emergency. The largest-ever climate opinion poll, by UNDP/University of Oxford, found over four in five of the UK respondents believe climate change is a global emergency – the joint highest proportion of the countries surveyed. Of these, over three-quarters said we should do “everything necessary, urgently” in response. ‘The public’ are employees and investors, too. The food industry must respond with both urgency and care.

Food companies are increasingly acting. We’ve recently seen stricter science-based climate targets from Sainsbury’s, carbon-neutral products from Leon, plus indirect climate-friendly commitments, including on food waste. The threat of future carbon taxes, plus the possibility of saving money and building loyalty, are driving action. And the desire to do the right thing too.

But we need to accelerate progress. And an ethical approach can help us navigate this minefield of minefields. If business leaders explicitly consider likely impacts on others from potential climate-related actions, they’re likely to make better decisions. So, which attributes will help?

1. Being brave

BrewDog ruffled feathers by openly criticising any company with a net zero target beyond 2030. I’m 100% with them on the urgency. Being brave is also committing to a goal without having all the answers.

2. Being honest

Being open and honest about dilemmas means explaining the course of action taken and showing the business has thought about impacts of its decisions on others.

3. Being consistent

Applying a climate lens to every part of the business is vital. There also needs to be consistency in the way carbon footprints are measured across the sector and in the terminology used. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re using different terms – like ‘carbon negative’ and ‘carbon positive’ – to mean the same thing.

4. Making it a joint effort with suppliers and customers

Doing net zero well must involve rapidly reducing emissions across the chain together and, only then, using quality offsets. Mission possible, if it’s a collective mission.

5. Using your influence carefully

Calling for policies that speed up the transition to net zero will help. I’m against slapping a carbon tax on just a few high-impact categories, like meat and dairy. However, we need to prepare for a fair carbon price soon. What we pay for our food should better reflect its true cost, including its global warming impact. In accepting that, we need to also put ourselves in the shoes of those likely to lose out the most and put mitigating measures in place.

6. Taking opportunities to influence the global stage

Sector leaders should encourage Alok Sharma, president of COP26, to show climate leadership by making food systems a priority area for November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Food and farming can be at the heart of solutions to the climate emergency.

As Pete Ritchie, director of Nourish Scotland and member of the Food Ethics Council, said: “The road from Paris to Glasgow must go through the farm gate.” It must also go through every food enterprise’s door. Because the climate emergency is a mission critical issue for every food business.