Reaching net zero: challenge and opportunity

Innovation may cut agriculture’s impact on the environment

Watching industry leaders discuss climate change has become a far more encouraging activity of late.

Ten years ago, it was widely seen as ‘something that someone else should do’.

Much changed after the UN Paris Agreement of 2015. Paris required governments to work to limit the average rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to keep any increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, global emissions would have to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050.

At the COP 26 summit in Glasgow in 2021 governments will showcase progress made towards decarbonizing their economies.

Cutting the carbon footprint of the agricultural sector, where I have been working for several years, is central to this effort. And attitudes there are evolving fast.

The industry recognizes its responsibility: The global food system accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Tackling this involves every business from nutrient production to food packaging and logistics. It means switching farmers to more climate-appropriate crops and better farming practices, requiring fertilizer makers to produce more energy efficient fertilizers, even persuading meat-lovers to adapt their dietary habits.

Agriculture’s challenge is a microcosm of the game-changing demands confronting the wider business community.

Those who fear the ‘impact’ of climate change on business should not fret. Significant opportunities lie ahead. There is scope for carbon free champions to emerge, based on innovation, including the development of low-carbon technologies and energy sources to power, heat, and supply society – much of this driven by the refocusing of institutional investors away from carbon-intensive industries like coal.

Every restriction can open up demand elsewhere. In the UK itself, politicians envisage the banning of petrol and diesel cars by 2035, a 400% increase in the generation of electricity from renewables, and a fundamental change in how we heat homes and offices.

Despite the distractions of Covid-19 and Brexit, momentum in the UK towards a decarbonized economy is growing, as elsewhere – even in the US where President-elect Joe Biden has committed to reversing his predecessor’s policies and making the combating of climate change a top priority.

Campaigners hope this momentum will show governments at COP 26 there is sufficient global unity to meeting the Paris goals and encourage them to adopt policies that will steer the global economy further towards a carbon-free future.