The climate conversation is evolving as biodiversity and natural capital rise up the agenda
Sustainability conferences often cover a lot of sector specific jargon but the 8th Annual Economist Sustainability Summit represented the headlines in unmistakably plain English.
The climate crisis will keep growing until we hit net zero.
We now have two tasks ahead:
- adaptation to manage the risk that comes with a changing climate and increasingly common extreme weather events, and
- mitigation to reach net zero and stop environmentally damaging behaviours as quickly as possible.
The 'we' in this scenario is everyone. Governments, business, finance, NGOs, citizens, with several speakers calling on more citizen action in particular. This coincided with the week that the first climate court case of its kind has been launched against the Swiss government. Thousands of older women have raised a legal challenge in Switzerland about the health consequences they disproportionately suffer from as a result of climate change, due to what they deem a lack of sufficient government action. Milestone legal proceedings such as this could have significant ripple effects.
There were a striking number of examples of cooperation across sectors, including a talk from the Competition and Markets Authority on the very topic, opening up competition rules in this area. Competitive advantage is being set aside to deliver common sustainability goals, be it decarbonising freezer infrastructure across food multinationals, to transitioning away from diesel generators on film sets with impact funds set up by Netflix and Disney. This emphasised the importance of capacity building of green skills across supply chains to accelerate the rate of change. It was interesting to hear this echoed across several sectors, and continues to set up the need for a 'just' transition. The analogy of "develop the recipe, cook it up and share it with your neighbours" shared by Netflix will be a significant cultural shift for many organisations, but increasingly important to tackle sector challenges at the pace and scale needed.
The presence of the UN ensured regular and balanced focus across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals; you can't chase carbon targets without understanding their impact on biodiversity, protect forests without also protecting our oceans, solve extreme poverty without prioritising women's economic equality. It's complicated, and that's the reality of it. But as Steve Kenzie from the UN Global Compact Network put it, "nature and biodiversity are rising up the business agenda faster than anything else".
That set the tone for a whole break out timetable on Natural Capital and Biodiversity, including an encouragingly wide consensus that climate and nature need to be tackled as one, not either/or. The fact that more than half of global subsidies are environmentally harmful is a structural challenge for governments around the world, and represents a clear lever for change.
What emerged from all talks was a recognition of the role of the farmer and the peer to peer learning model to drive increased regenerative practice. The Soil Association's own Innovative Farmers programme with associated Field Labs has a lot to offer. These networks can not only deliver the climate adaptation needed, but there were also wider global examples where they increasingly act as early warning systems for risks such as salination of soils.
There was a broad church of interest in regenerative practice, albeit tempered by the way that the term is being interpreted to varying degrees by multinationals and chemical companies alike. Equally this made it the perfect setting to raise the profile of the origins of the organic movement and legislated standard. Sandwiched between two panel discussions featuring senior figures from the UN, OECD, Sky, Pernod Ricard, BASF, I had the luxury of 20 minutes to share perspectives from the organic movement and the IDDRI modelling that shows what a transition to farming systems like organic could achieve. A standardised way of achieving a 40% drop in emissions, rebuilding biodiversity and feeding a growing population in Europe.
It's a framework backed by governments around the world and rooted in indigenous farming practices developed from observing and responding to nature. It's born out of a concern for and research into the devastating effect of nitrogen fertiliser on our soil, climate, water, and most recently air quality.
Lady Eve Balfour, one of the founding leaders of the Soil Association, published The Living Soil as early as 1943. It seems slightly perverse that 80 years later AgriTech and chemical companies are championing the idea as a new revelation to continue to chase yields when all the evidence suggests that something's got to give. Producing more food not only isn’t the answer to the food insecurity we face, but will only make the situation worse if we fail to tackle the climate and nature crises.
It's tempting to see everything through the lens of a lab, variables we can control, single outcomes we can monitor. But nature is complicated, that's the reality of it. The life cycles our 13 year old selves coloured in for geography lessons are something we're part of, not separate from. It goes for GMO, glyphosate, pesticides, nitrogen fertilisers, intensive animal farming, the whole spectrum of everyday practices that have repercussions on climate, nature and our health.
Estimates are as high as that for every £1 spent on food and drink, a further £1 is needed to pay for the environmental cleanup and health impacts of routine antibiotic usage. Cheap food is not good value for money.
I've come away hopeful, and energised that the big international thought leaders are further along than I'd feared. The variety of reactions to my slot on stage has reinforced my conviction in what organic has to offer to every part of the food system. Nature is more complex and nuanced than we could ever begin to design, and working with it is the best shot we’ve got.