Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to travel to Dubai for the COP28 Climate Summit, where the United Nations gathered representatives from almost every country in the world to agree on paths forward for climate action. It was an incredible experience on a number of levels, and perhaps most striking of all was the prominent role that food and agriculture had at this year’s event.
As my first in-person COP experience, it was… overwhelming to say the least. While actual negotiations are happening on multiple topics in parallel, there are hundreds of side events occurring at the same time. Just figuring out what was happening when was a project in itself.
Food was spotlighted at this COP far more than ever before, and this was the first year that there was a formal Food Day as part of the official schedule. There were also almost 700 side events focused on food, and at least 18 specifically on food loss and waste (FLW). In fact, there was actually an entire Food Loss and Waste Day at the Food Systems Pavilion, organized by the Global Foodbanking Network. At one point, there were four different FLW panels taking place at the same time – I don’t know if I would’ve believed it, if I hadn’t been there to see it!
More than 150 countries signed onto the “COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action” – and notably, reducing FLW is one of only a handful of specific actions mentioned. What’s more, the Alliance of Champions for Food System Transformation was announced – it’s a set of countries that are trying to lead in implementing that declaration and have committed to a more ambitious level of action across 10 Priority Action Areas, one of which is FLW. Soon after this, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a report, “Achieving SDG2 without breaching the 1.5C threshold,” and this too had an explicit set of strategies related to reducing FLW.
Also related, there was a huge focus and a host of announcements around methane. Given that landfills are a leading source of methane, and food scraps are responsible for almost 60% of methane from landfills, this focus is highly relevant for work on FLW. The State Department announced the Low Organic Waste Methane Initiative “to deliver at least 1 million metric tons of annual waste sector methane reductions well before 2030 working with 40 subnational jurisdictions and their national government counterparts, and to unlock over $10 billion in public and private investment.” They will do this by “supporting action across the waste value chain, from reducing food loss and waste to diverting and treating organics in the waste stream to cutting emissions from disposal sites.” (A few weeks prior to COP28, the US-China Sunnylands Statement had both countries agree to set an explicit methane target, something that neither has done to date.)
It’s important to note that all of this action took place outside of the actual negotiations. The official Global Stocktake did include some reference to food in the end, which is the first time any COP documents have acknowledged the role that food and agriculture play in climate change. It was a minor reference relative to other sectors – but it was an important step nonetheless. For an excellent summary of the outcomes of the negotiations overall, see this piece by the World Resources Institute.
All in all, there is no question that this will be seen as the year that food and agriculture truly arrived as part of the COP summits. I feel honored I was able to be a part of it, as there’s no question that this is just the beginning, and momentum is sure to grow.