Taking stock after COP 26

Image: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

On Saturday, the UNFCCC’s 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) ended in Glasgow. It marked the sixth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, in which nations committed “to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. What has been achieved and what does it mean for agriculture?

A number of sustainability pledges might mark the future of agricultural land use and climate change

Following a non-committal G20 summit, many observers had low hopes for COP 26. The good news is that the Conference of Parties has exceeded the glum expectations in several ways, some of which will have implications particularly for agriculture:

  • The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use: More than 100 global leaders pledged “to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”. Among others, the declaration includes specific commitments to “facilitate trade and development policies […] that promote sustainable commodity production and consumption”; to “reduce vulnerability, build resilience and enhance rural livelihoods, including through empowering communities [and] the development of profitable, sustainable agriculture”; to “implement and, if necessary, redesign agricultural policies and programmes to incentivise sustainable agriculture, promote food security, and benefit the environment”; and to “facilitate the alignment of financial flows with international goals to reverse forest loss and degradation”. While these statements are only non-binding commitments, they could, if taken seriously, quite radically shake up the land use sectors.
  • The Global Methane Pledge (GMP): The GMP is an initiative led by the United States and the European Commission to reduce global anthropogenic methane (CH4) emissions across all sectors by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. As of 11 November 2021, 108 countries and the European Commission have signed up to the initiative. Agriculture contributes nearly 40% to the global methane emissions. Most of it comes from enteric fermentation in ruminates, smaller quantities from rice cultivation and animal manure. So, while it remains to be seen how exactly these emission reductions will be brought about, it is likely that food and agriculture, and especially the livestock sector, will need to step up and play a significant role in delivering the pledge. China and India as the world’s largest rice producers had not yet signed up to the initiative. 
  • Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture: At COP22 in 2017, parties adopted the ‘Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture’ (KJWA), which provides a road map to address issues related to agriculture in a holistic manner through a series of international workshops. While no specific agreements were reached at COP 26, governments intend to table a decision based on the KJWA’s work at COP 27 in 2022. It is expected to include the role of financial institutions and the need to align international organisations and processes in their work on agriculture and climate change.

Outside the political arena, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and 12 partners launched Regen10, aiming to work with over 500 million farmers to scale regenerative food production by 2030. The initiative intends to transform agricultural systems through the application of regenerative production methods, as well as to ensure roughly USD $60 billion per year is deployed to finance the transition. The ambitious goal is that by 2030, 50% of the world’s food is produced in a way that drives positive outcomes for people, for nature and for climate. Regen10 is backed by the World Bank Group, World Farmers’ Organisation, the Club of Rome, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and others, while more organisations are expected to join. 

Current pledges and targets of parties are not sufficient to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius 

The sobering news is that COP 26 failed to deliver against the hope of bringing the world onto a secure path towards the 1.5-degree target. Climate Action Tracker estimates that after COP 26 the world is now on an emission path towards 2.1 to 2.4 degrees Celsius, compared to 2.7 degrees Celsius ten months ago. This is if all pledges and targets are reached. The reality is, that despite the target set in Paris in 2015 and previous pledges, global emissions continue to rise year after year, widening the gap between what we need to do to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius and what we are actually doing (Figure 1). The chances of staying within the limits of the Paris Agreement are dwindling with every month that passes. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it at the summit, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees “is still in reach but on life support”.

Figure 1: The emissions gap between actual and necessary emission reductions to reach the 1.5 degree target, before and after COP 26 (Source: Climate Action Tracker, https://climateactiontracker.org/). NDCs = ‘nationally determined contributions’ to the global reduction effort.

Why is the 1.5 degrees-mark so important? Scientific evidence is mounting that it is indeed not only a political target. In the runup to the Glasgow COP, Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, pointed out that it is a biophysical threshold, which was non-negotiable. Surpassing it, the danger of reaching tipping points in earth’s main life support systems increases “with every fraction of a degree”, as Rockström said. Crossing these tipping points would plunge the earth into a spiral of self-reinforcing warming mechanisms that will then be entirely out of our control. A recent study warns that this would happen as early as in the 2040s, if we were to continue the current emission trajectory.

Food companies take the lead in commitments towards net-zero

Compared to the painstakingly slow progress in the political arena, some food companies have already internalised that there is no alternative to achieving net-zero as soon as possible. Many companies have pledged science-based targets including many members of the Cool Farm Alliance(1), and recognise that “companies benefit from applying a climate justice lens to their core business”. This is what panellists from Cool Farm Alliance members Unilever, Mars and AB InBev concluded at a COP side-event organised by Business Fights Poverty. They further agreed that ignoring the effects of climate change on people and on the planet would be extremely costly for companies. Crucially, however, a lack of ambition can also be equally risky for businesses. As Anouk Heilen from Unilever pointed out, key stakeholders want executives and leaders of the private sector to take serious and immediate action against the climate crisis. Companies already notice that young talent wants to work for employers that are committed to social and environmental causes; investor capital is flowing towards greener companies; and consumers are increasingly aware of their power as they prioritise brands that are aligned with high sustainability and social justice standards. Only barrier is that many of the corporate leaders have set targets for reaching carbon neutrality after 2030, which will, at the current global emission path, not suffice to stay within the 1.5-degree limit.

In conclusion, while COP 26 saw some course corrections towards halting climate change, it fell way short of the necessary course corrections that would have been needed to stabilise global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius. In a recent blog post, we outlined some of the potential implications for agriculture and food security if we fail to achieve that target. While some decision in Glasgow could prove particularly relevant for agriculture – the pledge on stopping deforestation and land conversion; and the methane pledge –, perhaps the most significant outcome of the summit is a heightened sense of urgency that world leaders take home from Glasgow and the hope that the decisions, collaboration and stronger targets will keep coming over the coming years to pursue a sustainable global climate.


The Cool Farm Alliance has helped growers and food companies since 2009 to make better on-farm choices with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, water and biodiversity. As the need to take climate action accelerates in urgency, the Cool Farm Tool can help development actors, academics, food brands, their suppliers and farmers to identify emission hotspots and reduction potentials; and to craft policies to effectively reduce emissions from farming. 

(1) The following CFA members have committed or agreed targets under the SBTi: AB InBev, Barry Callebaut, Boortmalt, Branston, Cargill, Bayer, BNP Paribas, Danone, DSM, Heineken, Kellogg’s, Lamb Weston, Mars, McCain, McDonald’s, Mondelez, Nestle, Olam, PepsiCo, Syngenta, Tesco, Unilever, Walmart and Yara, see https://sciencebasedtargets.org/companies-taking-action#table