COP28: UN climate talks take aim at planet-warming food

05 12 2023 | 04:25Georgina Rannard / BBC News

World leaders have for the first time promised to tackle the huge responsibility that food and agriculture have in climate change.

More than 130 countries signed up to a declaration about food, on the second day of the UN climate summit COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Food contributes a third of the warming gases increasing global temperatures.

Leaders including King Charles told COP28 that time was running out to tackle climate change.

The Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action has been welcomed by many experts and charities who say it is long overdue.

Countries that have signed up represent 5.7bn people and 75% of all emissions from global food production and consumption, according to the COP28 host nation the UAE.

Nations should now include food emissions in their plans to tackle climate change - also called Nationally Determined Contributions.

The US, China, the EU and the UK - some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita from food - signed up.

"The declaration sends a powerful signal to the nations of the world that we can only keep the 1.5 degree goal in sight if we act fast to shift the global food system in the direction of greater sustainability and resilience," said Edward Davey, head of research group World Resources Institute UK.

Debates around food and climate often focus on whether people should eat less meat and dairy.

Research has shown that a big meat-eater's diet produces 10.24 kg of greenhouse gasses each day.

And as food prices have gone up around the world, focus has turned to how growing weather unpredictability caused by climate change could also increase the cost of a supermarket shop.

But this declaration is unlikely to lead to government policies like a tax on meat or lower food prices in the short-term, says Edward Davey.

Leaders of global organisations representing farmers cautiously welcomed the declaration.

Esther Penunian, head of the Asian Farmers' Association representing 13 million farmers, called it a "major milestone".

But she urged governments to turn the promises into real policies.

She says more climate finance is needed to help small farmers, who produce a third of the world's food, but are at the mercy of extreme weather.

Brazilian farmer Karina Gonçalves David said she was happy to see leaders' attention turn to agriculture.

Extreme weather, including a record heatwave and floods that hit Brazil in November, is affecting what farmers grow, she says.

"The climate crisis directly affects farmers. The excess rain we have experienced is rotting the food that we grow, and our crops are either dying or those that remain have stagnated," she told BBC News.

The UAE announced the agreement as world leaders addressed the conference, pledging new action on climate change and warning of the impacts on their nations.

King Charles stressed the accelerating pace of climate change in a year now confirmed to be the hottest on record.

"We are carrying out a vast, frightening experiment of changing every ecological condition, all at once, at a pace that far outstrips nature's ability to cope," the King said.

"The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth," he concluded.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, which will host the talks in two years time, told the meeting that the world needed concrete actions.

"Humanity suffers with droughts," he said, focussing on the current situation in the north of Brazil, where the Amazon region is suffering with the worst drought in its history.

UK PM Rishi Sunak told delegates there was a "disconnect" between what he called "lofty rhetoric on stages like this, and the reality of people's lives around the world."

The UK has been accused of slowing down its progress in tackling climate change after Mr Sunak announced major policy changes in September.