Healthy and Sustainable Diets Are Critical to Reaching 1.5°C Climate Goal

One-tenth of the global population went hungry in 2020, while 1 in 3 adults are overweight or obese. Right now, no countries are on course to meet 2025 global nutrition targets, and global food systems contribute one-third of total human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

On November 10,  experts gathered at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) WWF Panda Pavilion in Glasgow to discuss what it means to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, and how shifting consumption patterns can help limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

“If we continue to ignore the food systems, the 1.5°C goal is out of reach,” says Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist for WWF. “We’re not talking enough about consumption.”

Even if all other sectors decarbonize completely, carbon emissions from food systems alone would use nearly all of the emissions budget for both 1.5°C and 2°C goals, according to Loken.

While the global energy sector has a clearly defined roadmap to reach net zero by the International Energy Agency, and nearly half of the global asset management sector has already committed to net zero by 2050 or sooner, “we’re lacking at the moment a clear pathway to reach net zero for agriculture and food,” says Helena Wright, Policy Director at FAIRR, a global investor network focusing on environmental, social, and corporate governance risks in the food sector.

“The food system today is net-negative in terms of the hidden costs on all of us, on climate, and on nature,” says Joao Campari, Global Leader of Food Practice at WWF, “but we can’t phase out food the way we are fossil fuels.”

UN Nutrition Executive Secretary Stineke Oenema defines a healthy and sustainable diet as one that is primarily plant-based including plenty of fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, and seeds, and she notes that these diets can also contain limited amounts of red meats and a modest amount of fish and aquatic foods.

“I’d like to emphasize that sustainable and healthy diets are also culturally acceptable…they are linked and rooted into the agroecological settings of a particular context, so that it’s actually feasible,” says Oenema. “People need to be at the center of food system transformation, otherwise it’s not going to work.”

One of the challenges with science-based decisionmaking criteria in the food and agriculture sector is that it can ignore generations of Indigenous knowledge, which are often embedded into agroforestry and agro-ecological systems, says Diane Holdorf, Managing Director of Food & Nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Marginalized communities, farmers, and consumers weren’t sufficiently engaged in the process of building national climate plans, according to Patty Fong, Program Director of Climate, Health, and Well-Being at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

“How are you going to find those links between climate, food, and diet if you’re not asking the people who are knowledgeable to give input into the process?” says Fong.

Nature-based solutions can be a low-cost investment option for boosting jobs, productivity, and economic activity, according to Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Global Coordinator at the International Labour Organization (ILO). He thinks “aligning finance for a just transition is the missing piece of the puzzle here.” For example, ILO estimates that 1.2 billion jobs in sectors such as farming, fisheries, forestry, and tourism are directly dependent on the effective management and sustainability of healthy ecosystems.

“At the end of the day, people want a livelihood, they cannot act for the climate if they cannot survive themselves,” Gueyes says. “Let’s bring it back to investing in people and finding solutions that are aligned with human welfare and livelihoods.”

In government, many local leaders are helping to accelerate necessary changes much faster than at the national level. “With a national government that is frozen on the issue, those kinds of activities happen locally,” says Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, Texas.

“Urban areas are really becoming the incubators of innovation, and there’s power in the city-to-city alliances. While I have yet to figure out how I get my governor to do the things that I think a governor should be doing, when Austin gets together with Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, that begins to effect state policy,” Adler says.

Austin was among 100 local governments that officially presented the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, a commitment by subnational governments to tackle the climate emergency through integrated food policies, during COP26. The Austin City Council also adopted the Austin Climate Equity Plan in September 2021 to equitably reach net-zero community-wide GHG emissions by 2040.

As an economist, Oenema offers a case to help convince state and national leaders—investing in nutrition will give a 60-to-1 return on investment, according to Oenema, including the potential for reduced obesity rates to reduce pressure on healthcare systems.

More policies and regulations are needed to create an environment for consumers to easily buy foods that are healthy and also environmentally sustainable, says Loken: “It’s really the beautiful merging of top-down regulations to create that environment with bottom-up approaches. Both of those have to come together.”

“This isn’t an issue that’s going to go away in 10, 20 years, it’s going to be a constant battle to the very end,” says Loken. “Of course, we need hope, but don’t rely on that alone. What we need is hard work, dedication, and determination every day.”

Diets, Climate, and Nature: The role of what we eat in a 1.5oC future, part 1

Diets, Climate, and Nature: The role of what we eat in a 1.5oC future, part 2

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