4 June 2021 - The race to net zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is clearly underway. Many companies in the supply chain are assessing what will be required to meet the target and other have already made pledges; JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, committing to net zero by 2040 being a striking recent example.
On April 14, the sustainability working group of Feedinfo Connect met for the first time to discuss what the industry could do to address challenges including climate change, emissions of pollutants, and land-use changes. The participants were quick to identify climate change as a sector priority, given its potential devastating consequences for agriculture and the planet, and for the sense of urgency.
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, published in October 2018, says that meeting a 1.5 °C target is possible but would require "deep emissions reductions" and "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."
And only a few weeks ago, the International Energy Agency stated in a report that the world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.
Joeri Rogelj, Director of Research and lecturer in climate change and the environment at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, also a coordinating author on the IPCC report, recently spoke to us about the 1.5 °C target and what the animal nutrition and health sector and the rest of the animal protein supply chain needs to keep in mind as it embarks on this net zero journey.
In a blog entry last year, Bill Gates said that by 2060, climate change could be just as deadly as COVID-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions or at least reduce them to a very low level.
Asked if the COVID-19 crisis has “distracted” people, companies and authorities from the lasting long-term risks associated with the climate crisis, Rogelj replied that this depends.
In Rogelj’s view, it is obvious that with the global pandemic raging, focuses of governments are on containing that pandemic. And keeping a focus on sector efforts to keep operating and ensure continuity of supply chains, and reaching customers is what you expect. But at the same time, due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, various governments are putting in place stimulus packages.
The amount of money being pumped into the economy and into research over the next few years will be substantial and will also be directed to sectors where positive transformation is needed in a more general sense. Those with climate change mitigation efforts can be beneficiaries.
“Many governments, particularly in Europe and in the UK, have taken this opportunity by investing this money into making this transformation towards a safer climate and safer world happen, and into research that is needed to reach as low emissions as possible,” Rogelj said.
“In some regions, in some countries it [COVID-19] has actually been a catalyst for investments and in others it will result in a barrier that five to 10 years down the line will cause again a new shock to their economies,” he added.
The IPCC report also stresses the huge benefits to human welfare, ecosystems and sustainable economic development in keeping warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or higher in the coming few decades. But even within this range, fears surface concerning industrial animal agriculture and animal welfare. It is also widely expected that most of the climate change-related challenges encountered by the animal nutrition sector today (extreme weather events, availability of animal feed resources, high prices for feed ingredients, energy use, animal growth and performance…) will be inevitably accentuated.
Rogelj concurred: “There are very few to no positives of a warmer world. There will be more droughts, more heat waves, significantly more crop failures, supply chains would get disrupted, food and feed production too. But I think the even larger challenge is the fact that we are simply not prepared. These are things that we have not planned for, that in most cases that we have not seen before or are very often on the horizon of people's experiences and people's risk registers. That is normal, of course, because that’s our nature. But we have to bear in mind the even higher risk factors too, and how suddenly they can occur.”
And besides the sudden and extreme weather events, there are also the gradual changes which can be associated with one additional degree by 2040. Rain patterns will be altered as well as growing characteristics and conditions for certain crops, meaning that certain crops will not be grown in certain regions any longer.
“It is really hard to anticipate what will happen when and which crop is the best crop to plant in a particular year. And I think that uncertainty is not a good thing. It just adds to the risk and to the exposure of this sector too,” Rogelj commented.
“I also think ocean acidification and ocean warming will impact ecosystems and the bottom of the food chain, such as the krill and larvae or the coral reefs that are refugee for many species. I see the risks there too,” he added.
Looking at the work carried out so far by the animal protein supply chain to reduce its overall environmental impact, Rogelj pointed out that his understanding of the sector’s sustainability activity remains limited but is aware that various measures and technologies exist, but it is not clear to him to what extent these are being deployed.
He said that as part of the 1.5°C report, IPCC looked at the entire literature of societal pathways to limit emissions to as low levels as possible and did a large inventory, querying 15 to 20 international world-leading modeling teams on how different GHG mitigation measures are represented in their modeling frameworks. This included livestock and grazing management, methane and ammonia reductions in ruminants through feeding, production management, or manure management.
For most models there were implicit representations, meaning that “someone decides that the emission factor for a certain activity is reduced over time without having a clear representation of which measures are important to achieve this,” Rogelj said, underlining that the community which is quite influential in developing these global pathways may not have a very granular understanding of what the sector can provide.
Under the Paris Agreement, all GHGs need to be reduced as much as possible, so highlighting what needs to be done in the animal production supply chain, he argued: “Nitrous oxide or methane are not off the hook. They really are expected to be reduced. However, what needs to be clearer are policy directives and incentives.”
He added: “It's quite clear net zero means that for every tonne of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere you remove one tonne of carbon dioxide, but if you include other GHGs, you kind of need to weigh them and compare them with carbon dioxide. And there are different ways of doing that and some, depending on how you proceed, involve reducing your emissions as much as possible. In other cases, however, it means that even when you keep your emissions constant, a company can call itself climate neutral. And that's really not the incentive you want to set. It's not because you have polluted in the past that today, continuing with that pollution, it is OK for the future.”
“We know that from our global analysis, each sector needs to try to produce as few emissions as possible. It is important that policies and regulation frameworks are put in place to encourage, incentivize, and ultimately also reward those that produce as few emissions as possible while producing and providing food that are absolutely needed and that we as a society need,” he went on to say.
Looking at the animal nutrition sector and the sustainable feeding practices and technologies put in place, Rogelj said that the variety of approaches is good and that the competition among players in the industry with this goal in mind can only be healthy.
Rogelj believes that the sector ought to take climate change-related scenario analysis and risk management very seriously.
“You can see so many net zero targets coming out. This is this is not something that that will go away. The societal momentum that you can see for the transformation is really much stronger today than I've ever experienced. Companies need to really think how they're going to fit into such a world,” he said.
At the same time, he warned: “Plan for the risk of continued global warming, particularly over the next couple of decades, and that this will affect your operations. It's absolutely key. If you don't do this, you will be surprised and generally these will not be good surprises.”
“Investors are really thinking a lot about this transition risk, which has a physical risk as well as litigation risk,” Rogelj added.
In his view the agricultural sector has been relatively little exposed to litigation risk compared to other sectors such as fossil fuel companies.
“It’s something to have in the back of your minds,” he argued. “We know that methane is a very powerful GHG. We know that its reductions can affect warming on a short timescale within a decade. Your emissions will be expected to be effectively lower. So, you can easily imagine a litigation case, for example, the calling out of a big agricultural company, particularly a meat producer for not having reduced their emissions as much as they could, especially as they know that their ongoing emissions are causing harm and are causing climate change.”
“It is another risk factor that companies really need to think about quite carefully. I'm not aware of any litigation case yet, but I'm sure that if companies are not doing their best in the future, they will be called out. And litigation is one way of being called out,” he added.
“I don't see it as too farfetched for someone to suddenly say: ‘Why isn't this company doing more than it can do? It knows that its emissions are continuously causing climate change. So why isn't it doing everything to limit those emissions to the maximum extent possible?”