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From sidelines to frontlines: Food companies like Kellogg step up climate ambitions at COP21

By Aditi Sen, Behind the Brands Climate Change Policy Advisor

I have followed the annual COP climate negotiations for several years now, and each year, I end up feeling more despondent than before. Even though I have turned into a bit of a COP cynic, this year as representatives from governments, businesses and civil society gather in Paris, I am feeling cautiously optimistic.

For the first time, more than 180 countries, including US and China, two of the world’s biggest emitters have put forth proposals to reduce emissions. Another welcome development has been that a growing number of companies, including many of the Behind the Brands companies in the food and beverage sector, have committed to mitigating climate change and have voiced their support for a strong Paris outcome.

Just today at the COP, Kellogg announced a new climate goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent across its own operations, and to reduce their supply chain emissions by 50 percent by 2050, and committed to working with its suppliers to find ways for them to reduce their carbon footprints. This goal is yet another signal of food companies stepping up their commitments to tackle climate change.

This greenhouse gas reduction target is a component of the wider climate change policy that Kellogg  released in August 2014, and came after more than 230,000 Oxfam supporters signed petitions and took action as part of our Behind the Brands campaign to urge the top 10 food and beverage companies to address climate change.   What is noteworthy about the target that Kellogg has released, as well as the one General Mills released earlier this year, is that they are targets that align with the level of effort needed to avoid temperature increase above 2°C, the global threshold for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

Kellogg’s target comes on the heels of a range of other climate initiatives announced by Behind the Brand companies over the last few months in the lead up to the COP. The initiatives range from commitments to reducing emissions across value chains to procuring 100% renewable energy and eliminating deforestation from supply chains. For example, Mondelez recently pledged to achieve zero net deforestation in its cocoa supply chain and Unilever pledged to source all energy across its operations from renewable sources by 2030, while also setting a 2020 target for phasing out coal from its energy mix.

The food sector has also been vocal in advocating for a strong outcome in Paris. Chief executives of Mars, General Mills, Kellogg, Unilever, Coca Cola, Pepsico and Nestle USA signed an open letter calling for urgent action to tackle climate change. They are joined by the heads of several other major food and beverage companies.

Unfortunately, some food companies still seem stuck in the past. Last month, the dairy giant Danone released a disappointing climate policy where the company did not commit to any immediate cuts in absolute emissions within its own operations and supply chains but instead gave itself the license to potentially grow its emissions for another 10 years.

And even though the food sector has signaled its readiness to transition towards a low carbon future, it can and should be doing more. In particular, there is an urgent need for food companies to tackle their supply chain emissions stemming from agriculture. 25 to 30 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and reducing these emissions is critical for achieving any long term mitigation goal to stabilizing global emissions.

Agriculture is also uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the brunt of the increased climatic and related economic risks is borne by the millions of small-scale farmers producing agricultural commodities in developing countries. Food companies need to scale up their own investments in building the resilience of such farmers.

So yes, it’s great to see the momentum that food companies are bringing into this COP and many of them are no longer standing on the sidelines, but there’s still a ways to go until the finish line.

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