The UN Climate Summit falls short

Unsplash/Jo-Anne McArthur

By Todd Post

In recent months, I’ve been writing about the United Nations conferences on climate and food systems. The climate change conference took place in Glasgow between October 31 and November 13, and the food systems conference in New York was held on September 23.  I’ve described these as interlocking events because it would seem impossible to achieve sustainable progress against climate change without significant food system reform. The global food system accounts for roughly one-third of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

What does this mean for Bread for the World’s mission to end hunger? The progress against global hunger made in the past several decades is ebbing away as a result of climate change. The longer it takes for the global community to embrace aggressive action to fight climate change, the greater the risk of falling short of the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and malnutrition. But let’s not mince words. In both “worse case” and worst case scenarios, we are trafficking in euphemisms to speak of “falling short.” Staggering numbers of people would be at risk of hunger.    

It’s important to note that the climate conference produced several notable commitments.

More than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. I was pleased to see the Biden-Harris administration lead the effort to persuade other governments to sign the Global Methane Pledge. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Although it is present in smaller quantities in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and it also dissipates more quickly, methane is 80 times as potent in raising the planet’s temperature. This makes reducing methane an urgent priority.

Notwithstanding its leadership in rallying other countries to sign the pledge, the U.S. government does not support regulating methane emissions in the livestock industry. As I wrote earlier, such regulation would have a significant impact on the cost of operations in the animal agriculture sector, meaning that consumers would certainly notice increases in the price of hamburger and other beef products. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said that he doesn’t believe Americans need to reduce their meat consumption or livestock production. I beg to differ, and it would appear that climate science disagrees as well.

Protecting forests is another area where efforts are underway. More than 100 national governments agreed to halt deforestation in their countries by 2030. Deforestation is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. Forests are also vital resources because they are carbon sinks—they pull carbon from the atmosphere and contain it, thus helping to reverse climate change.

This sounds like a positive level of cooperation. The problem is that these agreements are nonbinding, so a newly elected government could easily back out. In the United States, we saw  President Donald Trump in 2017 move to withdraw the country from the historic Paris Climate Accord and, along with it, the commitments that President Barack Obama made in 2015.

Among the nations that agreed to halt deforestation is Brazil. This should raise eyebrows since Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, has permitted cattle producers to deforest huge swaths of the Amazon. Deforestation on such a scale is pushing the rainforest toward an irreversible tipping point that would not only destroy its ability to act as a carbon sink, but turn it into a net producer of carbon.

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg assessed statements from leaders at the conference as more of the same or, in her words, “blah, blah, blah.” As the conference was taking place, climate change appeared to be making its own statement. Several countries noted record high temperatures. Both Australia and Japan experienced record rainfalls. The southeastern United States was inundated with coastal flooding, highly unusual for the time of year. After months of drought in Uzbekistan, dust storms blanketed the nation’s capital. Examples such as these seemed to raise the question of whether climate change was acting out–with perfect timing to ridicule the small favors offered up at the conference.

The impacts of the U.S. food system on climate change will be part of the national conversation once again as Congress begins work on writing the next farm bill, which is on track for reauthorization in 2023. Congress will hold hearings on various components of the bill in 2022.

The farm bill is the most consequential legislation for the U.S. food system, and its large footprint in the global food system makes it important to many other countries as well. The farm bill has been a priority for Bread for the World since our founding in the mid-1970s, and the upcoming farm bill will be a focus as well. I will have much more to say about the upcoming farm bill soon.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World.

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