Thursday, May 19, 2022

Vegans disappointed at the outcome of COP26

20,000 delegates and world leaders from 200 countries gathered in Glasgow in November to tackle the climate emergency. The 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’ summit was regarded by many as the world’s last chance to come up with solutions to the climate crisis, and to keep global temperature increase to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Even before the summit began there were reports that a meat industry lobby giant had waged a campaign against the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy – a series of proposals aimed at creating a more environmentally-friendly food system. Copa-Cogeca, a cooperative of EU farmers, reportedly spent a staggering €1.7m on plans to influence MEPs.

Then there were the private jets.  About 400 of these flew into Glasgow for the talks.  It was pointed out that 50% of global aviation emissions are caused by the use of private jets.  Jeff Bezos, Prince Charles, Joe Biden and Boris Johnson were among those criticised for their choice of transport.

Next came the menu.  We had all hoped that the delegates would finally see the light and opt for a completely plant-based menu.  But it was not to be.  Instead, the menu heavily featured meat and dairy, albeit with a climate footprint value for each item.  Some of the delegates were alarmed by the menu choices and by the long queues for the meat-based options.  Campaign group Animal Rebellion compared it to “serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference.”

One of the menus at COP26. Photo credit: New York Post

And so, we could do nothing but wait for the end of the summit in the hope that something positive would come out of it.

Main points of the deal

A deal was finally reached on the 13th of November.  The final 11-page document is called the Glasgow Climate Pact.  Here is a summary of the main points:

GHG Emissions:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 for global warming to be maintained at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Commitments made by countries so far to cut emissions are nowhere near enough to prevent planetary warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.  Governments must strengthen those targets by the end of next year, rather than every five years as previously required.

Coal:

  • Countries are asked to reduce their reliance on coal and roll back fossil fuel subsidies. 
  • India requested that the deal call on countries to “phase down”, instead of “phase out”, coal.  While this change of wording was initially resisted by delegates, they eventually agreed to it in order to save the deal.

Poor and vulnerable countries:

  • The deal refers to “loss and damage”.  These are the costs that some countries are already facing from the destruction wrought by climate change. 
  • Wealthier, developed countries will now double their collective provision of climate finance for developing countries in order to help them to cope with climate change.

Forests:

  • There is now a global pledge to end deforestation by 2030.
  • This plan involves setting aside 9 billion dollars to stop slashing trees and reverse human-caused forest destruction.
  • Agricultural companies are being asked to limit their role in driving forest clearing. 
  • Among the countries committing to the plan are Brazil, Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Russia, Spain, the US, and the UK.
  • The UK government revealed that 30 CEOs of companies connected to agricultural practices had agreed to eliminate investment in deforestation.  They will make their “best efforts to eliminate agriculture-related deforestation activities” over the next five years.

Carbon Markets:

  • Up to now, the carbon credits market had been largely unregulated and the pricing system was unclear.
  • After 6 years of negotiations a set of rules for carbon markets has now been put in place.
  • It is hoped the new rules could provide vast sums of money which could be used to protect forests, build renewable energy facilities and other projects to combat climate change.

Global Methane Pledge:

  • Over 100 countries, including the US and EU, have committed to a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030.

Companies and investors:

  • Companies and investors made a number of voluntary pledges to phase out petrol cars, decarbonise air travel, protect forests, and ensure more sustainable investing.
  • The financial sector pledged to move trillions of dollars of investments into companies that are committed to net-zero emissions.

COP26 president Alok Sharma said: “We are well aware that ambitions have fallen short of the commitments made in Paris.  We have kept 1.5 degrees alive.  But its pulse is weak, and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

How did people react to the deal

Commentators say that our chance of staying within 1.5°C is either still alive (just), or it is now out of sight with the world heading for up to 2.4°C of warming.  90% of countries have submitted plans for reducing carbon emissions, but many go nowhere near far enough to support a 1.5°C warming threshold.  As mentioned above, the parties have agreed to come back together in 2022 with revised and strengthened plans.

According to an analysis by Hoehne and colleagues, published on the Climate Action Tracker  website, it appears that the promises will still not be enough to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.  It showed that even if countries do meet their 2030 targets, global temperatures will still rise 2.4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

However, many scientists and environmentalists applauded the outcome. “It’s basically as good as one could hope for,” said Robert Stavins, an economist at Harvard.  Commenting on the new global carbon market rules, Jae Edmonds, a climate scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said: “If those savings were reinvested climate mitigation, it would more than double the projected annual emissions reductions in 2030.  There are tremendous opportunities here.”

Activists from The Plant Based Treaty campaign were present at COP26. Photo credit: Plantbasedtreaty.org

Reaction from vegans

Global policymakers remained silent on the subject of plant-based diets and emissions from animal agriculture.  Discussions on emissions from the food system represented only 0.1% of all talks at the summit. This is despite the fact that 25% of global emissions come from the food system.  Discussion on the transport sector normally has an entire day dedicated to it at COP, yet emissions from animal agriculture are greater than those from the entire transport and aviation sectors combined.

The Vegan Society said it was disappointed by the “slow and uninspiring targets for tackling methane set at COP26” – despite the fact that methane has a global warming potential 84 times greater than CO2 across a 20-year time frame. Louise Davies, CEO of The Vegan Society, commenting on the Glasgow deal said: “We know that time is running out and we need to bring methane emissions down substantially and quickly – and proposing to reduce it by just 30% just isn’t enough. Food really does feel like the cow in the room – it’s not that we’re lacking the solutions to address food and agriculture but it’s just that there’s still so much reluctance to have that conversation in the first place.”

UNEP Food Systems and Agriculture Advisor James Lomax said the world needs to be “rethinking our approaches to agricultural cultivation and livestock production” in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Plant Based News pointed out that the meat industry is a major driver of deforestation. Forests are being cleared to create pasture for cattle grazing and to grow soy as animal feed.  Yet there was little or no discussion of the role played by animal agriculture.  While the deal aims to reduce methane leaks from new and existing oil and gas pipelines, it fails to tackle the meat and dairy corporations responsible for the biggest emissions. Livestock emissions account for roughly 32% of human-caused methane.

Vegan climate change activist and lecturer, Dr. Alex Lockwood said: “This is probably the most depressed I’ve felt about the climate emergency in the last 20 years.  I’ve spent time at this conference on the edge of tears.”  In an article published in Sentient Media, Lockwood suggested a number of reasons why animal agriculture was not up for discussion at COP, including the fact that the vegan movement has limited lobbying power as compared with ‘big agriculture’.  He also pointed out that it was generally felt that it was unfair to ask developing countries who already have many challenges to deal with (such as poverty, lack of access to clean water, dangers from unsafe cooking fuel, and climate challenges) to stop eating meat.  Purported sensitivity to this issue by the richer Global North, Lockwood says, hides the fact that per capita meat consumption is much higher in these countries.

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