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Leadership in tackling the climate and nature crises is key - are the COPs important?

Leadership in tackling the climate and nature crises is key - are the COPs important?

Update 22/12: Did COP15 provide any answers to addressing the climate and nature crisis?

COP15 was always meant to be nature’s ‘Paris moment’, with landmark commitments for biodiversity, but now all is said and done, what really was achieved? Well, despite concerns of a slow start, this is an historic agreement that should fill us with not only hope, but more importantly an urgency to deliver.

Last week in Montreal nearly 200 countries agreed to a new set of goals and targets to “halt and reverse” biodiversity loss by 2030. Underpinning this are 23 targets the flagship of which was Target 3, which contains the ambition to conserve 30% of the world’s land and 30% of the ocean by 2030.

This is an ambitious target, and saving and expanding the most threatened habitats is crucial, but it will not be enough on its own. Ultimately the Soil Association believes all land should protect nature, and conservation ambitions will be undermined without a radical shift to sustainable farming. It is also vital the rights, knowledge and contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities sit at the heart of any implementation.

Of the other targets, we were closely monitoring the progress around Target 7 which focussed on pollution. Despite some ambitious text in the original draft relating to pesticides, the final version is not quite where it needs to be. The original proposal was to cut pesticide use by two thirds, and this has changed to cutting “the risk from pesticides” by half. But it remains an encouraging target, and this must jolt the government into publishing its long-awaited National Action Plan on pesticides along with an ambitious target to reduce the use of pesticides in the UK by 50% by 2030. Another important aspect of Target 7 was the sub-target on nutrient pollution, which retained most of its ambition in the final text in calling for a reduction of excess nutrients lost to the environment by at least half by 2030. Now is the time for government to help farming to shift British farming away from its reliance on chemical fertilisers which will save farmers money, reduce global emissions resulting from these fossil-fuel derived products, and end the decimation of our river systems from fertiliser run-off from fields. Farmers need support to adopt alternative, nature-friendly practices.

For agriculture more widely, we were pleased to see agroecology mentioned in the body of Target 10, which aims to ensure that areas under agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and forestry are managed sustainably. However, it is concerning that there was no reference to diets in Target 16 where consumption footprints were discussed, despite the clear evidence that a shift to less but better meat and dairy will be necessary for us to reach our climate and nature targets. 

Ultimately, given the factors at play, this agreement was as good as many could have hoped for. But that’s all it is, an agreement. As the seven years since the Paris Climate Agreement has shown, whether or not we truly do turn the tide on the ecological crisis by 2030 will be determined by the actions individual countries take right now. The UK must step up and deliver on this both at home and internationally through food and farming polices and trade deals that protect nature and deliver healthy, sustainable diets. 

Pollution, deforestation, desertification, topsoil loss, water scarcity and climate change. Each one is a crisis on its own but crucially all are linked, and all compound the ecological crisis which sits at the epicentre of them all.

For too long we’ve viewed these crises as separate and so our efforts to tackle the ecological crisis have remained siloed. It’s why, despite 27 iterations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference, it took until the 26th in Glasgow (COP26) last year for Nature to be formally recognised as a crucial solution for climate action. This is despite clear evidence that the climate and nature crises can only be tackled in unison.

At the Soil Association, we believe that focusing on a single issue is ineffective and often generates perverse outcomes. For example, enabling new technologies like gene editing to be developed without effective regulation and considering the broader farming system not only poses significant risks to businesses and the environment but could end up compounding the impacts of industrial farming.  

Climate leadership

The highlight of the recent climate conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh was the inspiring leadership shown by the lower-income nations and indigenous community representatives. This led to formal agreement for a loss and damage (L&D) facility to pay countries who cannot adapt to the effects of climate breakdown.

On the flip side, it was disappointing to see richer nations avoid commitments to phase out fossil fuels, despite retaining commitments to the 1.5°C target and coal phase-down. They must face up to their responsibilities by adequately funding L&D and the UK must show leadership here. Although technically feasible, as things stand, limiting warming to 1.5°C is a fantasy without political will.

What was said about nature at COP27?

Well, biodiversity is becoming an increasing part of the conversation. The agreed implementation plan reaffirmed the vital importance of restoring a healthy natural environment and for the first-time countries are encouraged to consider nature-based approaches in halting climate breakdown. However, there was a concerning lack of reference to how the UNFCCC outcomes will be integrated with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) framework outcomes which will be negotiated at the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal next week. This is widely viewed as our "best and last chance" to halt and reverse the decline of nature.

High levels of ambition are crucial if we’re to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Understanding the critical role the global food system has in affecting biodiversity, the Soil Association is calling for agriculture to sit front and centre of the negotiations; we cannot reach our conservation targets without a transition to sustainable farming. In particular, we’re calling for the government to support ambitious targets to reduce nutrients lost to the environment by half, and pesticides by two-thirds.

Is Greta right in her assessment that these conferences are blah blah blah?

By Christmas, we’ll have had a total of 42 UN meetings on climate and biodiversity over 27 years. During this time, global annual greenhouse gas emissions have nearly doubled whilst populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent. It is, therefore, more than reasonable for us to question the efficacy and even overall value of these conferences.

Local and regional activism is going to ramp up rapidly as the international process is increasingly seen as ineffective, particularly by younger people. In the UK, campaigning groups are increasingly shining a light on government inaction, but we must not forget there are countless community and indigenous groups globally who have been fighting inaction for years.

The UK has a clear opportunity, should it choose to honour its commitment to be an environmental superpower. We must use the shortfalls of international diplomacy and our own historical responsibility for the ecological crisis as a basis for even greater domestic action on both climate and nature together (as well as assisting lower-income nations to do the same).

The UK must step up if it is to show leadership on tackling the climate and nature crises.

Alarmingly, the UK Government recently failed to adhere to the deadline of setting the Environment Act’s legally binding targets by 31st October, and so we remain with no clear direction of travel. Plans for England’s future farming scheme, critical to achieving both climate and biodiversity targets, have barely progressed since we left the EU in 2016, and the Government’s advisors on climate change (the CCC) have expressed concern about the lack of concrete plans to decarbonise agriculture and land use. All the while, the government is still offering licences for companies to explore oil and gas in the North Sea, despite the UN General Secretary describing this approach as ‘delusional’.

Leadership is key now. We’re at a fork in the road, but there is a clear path forward. To help tackle the climate and nature crises, we urge the government to:

  • Support an agroecological transition and set an organic farmed area target of 50% by 2030, as well as:
    • Pesticide reduction target of 50% by 2030
    • Nutrient losses target of 50% by 2030
    • Soil health target
  • Scale up tree planting on farms through targeted support for farm regenerative woodland creation and agroforestry systems.
  • Introduce a commitment to ensuring consumption and production of poultry peaks within the next 12 months, with a rapid decline thereafter.
  • Prohibit companies operating in the UK from selling highly hazardous pesticides abroad.