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Accelerating net zero

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle

Covid-19 has put a lot on hold – but tackling the threat to our climate can’t wait. How can we feed the world sustainably while also decarbonising? Across two ThinkIns, Tetra Pak helped us find the answers


The pandemic has seen a lot of things put on hold. One of them was the UN Climate Change Conference – that was delayed – that will go ahead later this year. Another was CO2 emissions. The pandemic saw a seven per cent fall in CO2 emissions during 2020. That was the biggest since World War Two.

But the relief is temporary, and the crisis is still looming, ready to come back into focus as the world tried to return to normality.

There is a new president in the White House, and countries around the world are setting carbon neutral targets, but the problems we face are only getting starker. The world’s population is expected to rise from 7 billion now to 9 billion by 2035. Since 1992 emissions from energy have risen by more than half. And as the population increases, inevitably demand on scarce resources grows too. 

The World Food Organisation reckons that the number of people facing starvation has doubled during the pandemic, from 135 million to 270 million.

A billion people are still going hungry. Two billion are obese or overweight. A third of all food goes to waste, and the food industry produces a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

This all leaves us wrestling with two big questions: how do you decarbonise a world without undermining living standards; and how do you feed that growing population sustainably?

Two Tetra Pak ThinkIns dealing with those issues covered very different ground, but the solutions to both, it seems, have to rest on corporate action, consumer demand, and global coordination. 

In the first of these ThinkIns, which focused on decarbonisation, we heard from Claire Perry, the former UK Minister for Clean Energy and Growth. For her, change won’t start with COP – the climate change conference – but with institutions, with governments and our financial systems…

Claire Perry: We should expect this COP, regardless of what happens in the negotiating halls, to be a massive moment of truth about where we’re going, what the climate trajectories and what we’re going to do about it. The truth of the matter is this. I sat in the Madrid COP all the way through the last one we had because we lost a year.

We had half a million people protesting in Madrid, pleading with us to take action now. I sat in a meeting with the whole crew negotiating plenary, where the topic of debate was what was the title of the meeting we were in. For that room, the level of ambition and action expressed outside it has very little meaning.

And it’s not to say it’s not a valuable process because ultimately you have to have some structural framework to bring people together. But the more we can do with companies, with the financial system, with our own governments – expressed through the ballot box – the more we will have a chance to influence this actual outcome.

And I’m afraid to say that the tragedy of all of this is, you know, since the first Rio Earth Summit, emissions from energy are up over 50 per cent, people may have seen the International Meteorological Organization report yesterday. We all thought Covid, you know, look, this is the future demand collapse. We emptied the planes. We will stop travelling. Guess what? It hasn’t even registered.

It was a point made time and again in the discussion, and Jan du Plessis, non-executive chairman of the BT Group went further. In fact his pessimism reflected an urgency shared by all the contributors…

Jan du Plessis: But I want to come back to the role of government. And I’m sorry to say, I think Claire, thank you, will prefer to be called tonight an ex politician rather than a politician… I have sympathy with the job of governments, but they’re fundamentally dishonest, and I’m not talking just about our government. I’m talking everywhere.

They are great at painting pictures about achievements by the 2030s and ‘35 and all, what are we going to do in the future? They consistently refuse to do the things that are deeply unpopular today. So for example, in the UK, why many years ago, we stopped with what used to be called the fuel price escalator to try and discourage the use of diesel and Pedro? Because politically unpopular,

Why do we not tax the consumption of gas in domestic heating? Because it is obvious we have to decarbonise domestic heating and switch people and energy towards electrification, with the possibility of renewables. Why? Because it’s politically deeply popular. And I understand that, but until governments are prepared to make unpopular choices… there’s a limit to what people achieve.

And ultimately it will have to come through the ballot box.

Business may be at an advantage when it comes to following through. Jan said BT’s efforts to use less energy weren’t motivated just by a desire to be green – or to be seen to be green – they made good business sense. So reframing the way people think about environmental initiatives as not just as the right thing to do, but simple common sense, sounds essential.

And Claire Perry said she saw the same shift in attitudes among the public that he sees among some businesses

Claire: There’s something about the connection with nature. I mean, maybe it’s just, I’ve been locked down in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside in my old constituency, but there is something very powerful about people’s desire to reconnect with a better, healthier way of life, to think more mindfully about what they eat, to value other things.

And I think those are points the Green Party has made very successfully and they’re actually really resonating with people. And this is, I believe, why so many companies are on the transition because, you know what, CEOs are people too, and they have kids and they have grandchildren and there is a sense of, we’ve kind of really stressed the world.

I believe very strongly in the power of capitalism to generate prosperity, but I also believe in the power of well-regulated markets and companies to do good. And so there’s something about that powerful green party narrative that I actually find very compelling. And I think a lot of people increasingly feel that even if they don’t vote for them at the ballot box.

Another strong theme to emerge from our discussion was the importance of breaking the cycle of waste – of circularity. Tetra Pak’s own Lars Holmquist spoke of how the company is looking to reduce waste in its supply chain…

Lars Holmquist: It’s really critical for the food and beverage industry, first of all (never mind packaging), to meet two goals, really: one is to ensure food safety and food availability all around the world. That’s the food and beverage industry. That’s what we’re about. But at the same time, minimise the impact on the planet and the limited resources that it carries.

So it’s not really an either or situation here. We need to balance both these requirements. And they’re fundamental to our sustainable future. But really, coming back to the climate emergency that we are facing, you know, rapid decarbonisation as you call, it is really the need of the hour, the way we see it and circularity – so collection and recycling and the circular economy – is definitely a part of that solution because it keeps materials in use and reduces the environmental impact, that’s clear.

But it’s only really part of the answer because given the limited infrastructure that is there in many parts of the world, so a more comprehensive approach that we believe in, is to look at the full life cycle. So focus on decarbonising the products as well as the operations. So the products being the packaging, but also the equipment that is used to package and process food.

Packaging, processing, and the equipment used in those processes, and there’s something else, the elephant in the room: waste.

The session ended on a note from Lars which set up the next ThinkIn, because the food industry’s large carbon footprint globally comes mainly from food waste, as opposed to production. Waste always has a negative climate impact, and arguably there is no greater source of waste than in food. 

Lars: I think what we need to do is to talk, talk about facts and talk about data. And if you look today and I’m very happy that this question on food waste came up, because if you look at the data, we know that food and food production, but food waste has a big impact on the climate and the carbon emissions.

And so if we talk about data, let’s say 30 per cent of all food today is wasted. And we in the food and beverage industry – and specifically when you have a septic packaging technology – we know that every package, let’s say that we can package safely without preservatives, without refrigeration that lasts for one year, can be distributed to all corners of the world, regardless of the infrastructure, you know, the roads that heat and so on and be consumed safely within at least a year.

And all of that with minimizing the food waste and, the footprint, the carbon footprint… so if we talk about it in those terms, and adding facts and examples of how we contribute, you know… we are part of the, of the problem, there’s no doubt, but we’re also part of the solution.

So we ended this ThinkIn with some pretty clear ideas of the importance of systemic change, of top-down changes in manufacturing cycles, energy use, and transparency; about where targets are hit and where they are missed, and, equipped with these ideas we can start to see a path forward to carbon neutrality worldwide. To driving down emissions even as populations increase and the demand for better standards intensifies. Data, transparency, coordination: these are all vital tools in helping to make better, more informed and more sustainable choices.

I want to come back to a point made by Lars at the end of the ThinkIn on decarbonising the planet – a point about food waste. Before even health and education come the two imperatives of food and sustainability. We have to eat to live. And we have to eat sustainably for the planet to remain habitable. Hence the question for our second ThinkIn: how will we feed the world sustainably after Covid?

It’s a question with implications for the debate on decarbonising our planet. The answers overlap, and there’s the same tension at the heart of both: as demand increases, and resources tighten, how do we ensure sustainability and fairness across the world?

Now there is a legitimate debate over whether aggregate food production needs to be radically increased and if so by how much. There’s less room for argument over the need to cut waste, get more food to those who need it most, and shift the whole enterprise onto a sustainable footing. 

As Ertharin Cousin, who’s the former executive director of the World Food Programme, said, this is something that has been brought into stark focus by the pandemic:

Ertharin Cousin: Well, we must have hope. The reality is that before the pandemic there was a recognition that we, as a global community, needed to increase production of food by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed a population that’s projected at nine and a half to 10 billion. During the pandemic, what we saw was our food systems fail in a number of different ways.

What we saw were ports that failed, because in net importing countries where the population was on lockdown, and so they didn’t have adequate port support for taking product off ships, we witnessed situations, where, with curfews in a developing country – I am a truck driver bringing produce from the rural areas into the city. There’s no refrigerated trucks. And so if I’m now required because of curfews to drive during the day, that means produce is now spoiling on trucks because of the heat.

And so the, and the lack of access to refrigeration resulted in more products wasted. So what the pandemic did was bare the challenges in the food systems that many of us were aware of, but did not have the support from the business community or governments and from a development standpoint to address those fine tuning issues. And so now the conversation that is ongoing is how do we build back better?

There is one challenge that was projected that we still were very concerned about. Before the pandemic there were about 135 million people living on the verge of starvation, and those 135m people are primarily living in conflict areas, areas that are significantly affected by climate or by economic or political instability in their countries. We witnessed that number expand to 270 million people now living on the verge of starvation.

That number is one that we should always be aware of, and while we’re addressing these market issues, we also need to recognise the humanitarian issue

Solving this riddle, as Tetra Pak’s own Charles Brand says, is both a climate problem and a technology problem…

Charles Brand: Now, when we talk about food security and coming back to Ertharin’s and some of Hanneke points on all of the issues, this is about taking a product, sometimes over long distances, out to a consumer in all four corners of the world. And to do that, it does come back to the technology, that’s used.

Now, if I combine the technology, the functionality, together with sustainability, because that one third of the world’s food that goes to waste, you can translate all of that into, into climate equivalents.

Technology, practicality and sustainability – they all come together in tackling what is both a climate and a logistics problem, and during this ThinkIn we got three clear, concrete proposals as to how to address it. One is for a traffic light system informing consumers about the environmental impact of their produce. The basic idea is not unfamiliar, as Hanneke Faber, President of Food and Refreshments at Unilever, pointed out:

Hanneke Faber: So really what I would be a huge supporter of – and Unilever would be a huge supporter of – would be kind of traffic lights for the planet. But it is a large piece of work, and as you say, I don’t want to be marking my own homework. So that can be a Unilever scheme, it’s the Turkey voting for Christmas, so that needs a coalition of people to come together and an independent referee of some kind to make sure that, that the data that goes in and that eventually ends up on the pack or online for consumers is kind of fair and balanced, which is not so easy.

Exhibit one: all the discussions around nutrients score in your… you know, a frozen pizza can get a B score and be quite healthy, whereas the Italian olive oil gets a D, so it is not straightforward and it won’t be for the planet either.

Charles Brand agreed with Hanneke, but emphasised that this was an initiative that would require collaboration between different sectors and companies…

Charles: Industry should come together and they do through the associations and agree on certain types of measurements. I think here, the authorities can also help a little bit here in creating more of a standardisation on what we should be measuring and we all agree around those things.

It needs to go there, because we’ve talked about the consumer before and often the consumer gets confused because they don’t really know what it is that they’re looking at. And I suppose the traffic light system can have a red, yellow, green, maybe that’s the simplest simplest measure.

But when you come to more complex things like CO2 and other things, it’s what is good and what is not good. And having those benchmarks and yardsticks made clearer and giving the consumer an ability to truly understand whether something is better or worse for themselves – for obesity and health – better or worse for the environment, that’s very important.

As with ideas for carbon neutrality, the consensus was clear that any scheme like this needs not just industry and individual companies to come together, but support too from governments and intergovernmental bodies. And that brought us to a second proposal from Ertharin Cousin: a Paris-style agreement for food security and access…

Ertharin: Well, I’m hopeful that the global community will come together just as we did with the Paris Climate Accord, around a set of goals and game-changing ideas that will support the development of a food system that will not only support our planet and the planetary issues that we’ve been talking about, but also ensure that food access, food affordability for all is a reality. The kinds of answers that we’ve been talking about here today with increasing the cost of food, we don’t need to produce more food because enough food is produced, it depends upon where you live and what your economic situation is. And so developing solutions as a global community that leaves no one behind is what I am hopeful of; that the UN agencies will work with governments and the business and academic leaders to realise, as a part of the, the food system summit.

The third and final proposal was to take a whole life cycle approach to feeding the world sustainably: that is to make sure that emissions from production, packaging, distribution and consumption are all factored in. It is, as Charles Brand said earlier, a logistical and technological problem, but solving it is vital if people are to have access to food wherever they are in the world. Just as Lars said in relation to the aim to make Tetra Pak carbon neutral in the first ThinkIn, Charles Brand reiterated that ambition in this one:

Charles: You know, when you only focus on one part of the value chain, you can often get the wrong conclusions on whether it’s good or bad. And we’re a big advocate of lifecycle analysis where you take. From the beginning of the lifecycle of the product all the way through to end of life where it has been either being reused or recycled or whatever happens to it.

And when you take that total lifecycle approach and include all of the different elements that there are in the product. And then that gives you comparability from one product to another. The external measurement of that is incredibly important because, you know, obviously as a company we like to think that we’re very trustworthy, but we’re not always trusted.

And so we always use external sources to do the lifecycle analyses. And in fact, in everything that we do, from FSC certification of forestry to the CDP measurement of our climate program, and many other measurements, there are RE100, we always use those external certifications to make sure that we are on the right track from an externally measured perspective.

Justin King of Sainsbury’s frequently offered a dissenting view, but also a reminder of the other side of the coin. If the challenge is a global one, he said, it is not just on producers, manufacturers and governments to enact change, but on consumers to push for it.

Justin King: I think that all have to play their part and play their part on the right dimensions. And I would always encourage commercial organisations to look for where the competitive issues lie – the issues within their supply chain – and seek to take a position that differentiates them and then take responsibility to communicate that to consumers because nothing changes commercial behaviour quicker than consumers behaving differently with this thing – the wallet.

And, too often, I think we go for collaboration – it has its part, it’s certainly more important across borders and across issues – but you know, those two Cs and using them the right way, I think is incredibly important.

But it’s not as simple as watching what people do with their wallets. Companies, King says, have to anticipate demand as well as respond to it. 

Justin: In the end, the thing that will fundamentally allow the supply chain to change is the consumer engaging in a different way. And of course, it’s not acceptable for business, for commerce, to sit back and say, “we’ll wait until the consumer changes and then we’ll respond to it”, you often hear retailers, consumer goods companies saying, “you know, we respond to our consumers”. Well, No business like Sainsbury’s or Unilever that’s been around for a decade or more got to where it did today waiting to respond to consumers. You’ve got to be ahead of that curve. 

Justin King also suggests the pandemic has shown the global food system is not broken, but resilient. Food output doesn’t need to grow by 70 per cent by mid-century – rather, he says, prices need to rise in the rich North to cut waste. And even if we can agree on food security goals, competition, he says, is as important as collaboration in attaining them. 

So how do we reconcile this view with those of the other speakers, who argued for stronger supply chains, increased food production and a focus on affordability and collaboration? Well, King’s is arguably a view formed in the developed world while the others bring a more global perspective. 

But in the end, the apparent disagreement brings me back to two main ideas brought up throughout the ThinkIn by Tetra Pak’s own Charles Brand. As he said on the importance of a traffic light system, it’s not just about companies and industries coming together. It’s about providing consumers with better information to make better choices, and on this, maybe Justin King wasn’t that far apart from the other contributors after all.

Whether on carbon neutrality or food security, there is no silver bullet. But there is, perhaps, a shared key to achieving both these goals… consumers.

It’s us as consumers and voters who truly have the power to effect change, to insist on more sustainable supply chains and to acquire better eating habits. Traffic light systems, smart packaging, better governance – these all play a role in what is clearly a complex project demanding multiple solutions. And it’s a project for which we all need to start taking responsibility.