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COP28: Work needed to turn words into action

News | Published  21 December 2023

COP28 has concluded, leaving a trail of headlines in its wake. Join us as we delve deeper into these outcomes, unravelling the key decisions that will shape the future of global food systems.

The curtains have closed on COP28; the global stage has once again witnessed the gathering of nations, environmental advocates, campaigners, and policymakers, all meeting  to address the urgent challenges facing current and future generations. Among the issues discussed, the intersection of climate change, food security, and sustainable agriculture has taken centre stage. But has this been reflected in the declarations, funding and publications promised at the conference?  We’ve already summarised the key headlines on food and farming; this blog will take a deeper dive, examining the content, narratives, and likely impact of the most important food and farming themes of COP28. 

Food systems thinking and policy

One of the most positive outcomes of COP28 takes the form of the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. The declaration invites national governments to align their food and agriculture strategies with their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), National Determined Contribution (NDCs), and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). Crucially, it stresses that any path to fully achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement must include agriculture and food systems. 

NDCs are required under the Paris Agreement, designed to bring all policy priorities together to address climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. In order for a food systems approach to be incorporated into NDCs, countries must design and implement joint strategies for nature friendly production, healthy and sustainable consumption, and preventative measures for food loss and waste. As the most widely adopted declaration of COP28 with 158 signatories, if acted upon at a country level, this declaration has far reaching potential to mainstream sustainable food systems. The key word there is “if”, and it will be up to signatories to turn words into action. 

“WWF welcomes [the parties] commitments and particularly applauds the governments of Brazil, Norway, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Rwanda who have launched the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation, and are determined to go further, faster, by taking ‘whole of government’ approaches and learning from each other.” - Joao Campari, Global Food Practice Leader, WWF

To complement the declaration, more than 200 non-state actors called for accelerated action and committed to delivering a shared set of priority actions through the Non-State Actors Call to Action for Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature, and Climate

In order to transition these commitments into action on the ground, the COP28 Food, Agriculture and Climate Action Toolkit was launched as part of the Presidency's Food and Agriculture Agenda. The toolkit includes a set of resources, case studies and priority actions for integrating food in NDCs and NAPs. Several organisations, including Eating Better alliance member WWF, collaborated on Food Forward NDCs. This is a new interactive set of guidance providing policymakers with practices and measures that can enable systemic shifts in food systems. 

More work is needed

The Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action could lead to real changes, but this can only be made possible with country specific policy. As the declaration is not legally binding, there is no guarantee that this will happen. 

Elsewhere, negotiations on developing a new roadmap for Sharm el Sheikh Joint Work on Implementation of Climate Action on Agriculture and Food Security concluded after just one week. Unfortunately, no agreement was reached. Debate revolved around governance, with procedural elements the only details that could be agreed upon. Negotiations to formalise a roadmap for implementation will now resume in June 2024, 18 months after the inception of SSJW. 

COP28 saw the publication of the first Global Stocktake, the most highly anticipated outcome of the conference. The Stocktake is a process for countries and stakeholders to see where they’re collectively making progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. It is the first time that food systems and agriculture have been mentioned in a major UNFCCC document- a real win for a food systems approach. However, the document fails to directly state the importance of food systems transformation in the drive to mitigate climate change. As a result, it overlooks what is needed to deliver the Paris Agreement. Food systems are mentioned as an important adaptation measure, but disappointingly make no appearance in the ‘mitigation’ measures. 

“COP28 was a step in the right direction for food systems. Things are happening, of course not enough, and diet and livestock are noticeable by their absence. There were also record numbers of lobbyists for the livestock industry. On the whole it was a positive step and we can say change is coming and less and better is central.” - Duncan Williamson, Chair of Trustees at Eating Better, and Global Strategic Lead, Food System Transition at Forum for the Future

Healthy and sustainable diets

Despite food systems taking centre stage, COP28 demonstrated a significant lack of political appetite for shifting to healthy and sustainable diets. The Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture avoids explicit measures to tackle sustainable diets.

The FAO published their highly anticipated Global Roadmap: Achieving SDG2 without breaching the 1.5oC threshold. The roadmap presents 120 actions over 10 domains which should be taken in order to transform agri-food systems. In line with Eating Better roadmap principles, the report highlights the importance of evidence based dietary guidelines, utilising public procurement as a tool for mainstreaming sustainable and healthy diets, and the fundamental requirement to improve the food environment and education. However, the report crucially and disappointingly fails to recommend a reduction in meat and dairy consumption, instead relying on intensification and technological fixes: 

“The livestock sector requires intensified productivity via improved genetics and feeding practices, aiming to reduce resource usage. Prioritizing animal health and advocating for sustainable feed sources are essential, along with the shift toward integrated production systems and policies aligned with low-carbon practices.” 

So, what happens next?

As we process the highs and lows of COP28, our attention must turn to the task of implementing the commitments made at the conference. The pivotal next step relies on the collective effort to swiftly implement the promises made, making the most of the few official outcomes that can effect change. It is imperative that all stakeholders, ranging from governments to non-state actors, be held accountable for their promises with transparent reporting on progress and impact. Immediate action is required to rapidly implement scalable solutions and limited progress made at COP28 must not impede the necessary transformation of food systems.