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Food systems are crucial for climate goals, biodiversity and resilience

Urgent action is needed as world leaders convene at COP27 and later at COP15. Many solutions can be found on our plates.


Tim Forslund

Specialist, Nature and the economy


The UN’s 2022 Climate Change Conference, COP27, is underway in Sharm el-Sheikh. This year’s Emissions Gap Report presents a bleak outlook of a closing window.

The report states that current policies would lead to global warming of 2.8°C over this century, and the 1.5°C targets seem doomed, unless emissions can be cut by 45% in just eight years. It is true that countries responsible for about 79% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions now have net-zero targets in place. Yet, the lack of ambition is alarming, as only about two dozen countries have updated their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and only one country – Australia – appears to have submitted a more ambitious NDC.

The Emissions Gap Report lays out the transformation that is necessary across all sectors. Interestingly, one sector, the food system, is afforded particular emphasis in a separate chapter that states that “the food system accounts for one third of all emissions, and must make a large reduction”, with a call for interventions that include more plant-based food, less food loss and waste, and a broad uptake of farming practices in line with regenerative agriculture.

Food sector sets the biggest challenge but provides the greatest potential

This message is aligned with Sitra’s study Tackling root causes, in which we highlight the central importance of the food and agriculture sector in tackling not just the climate crisis but also biodiversity loss through the same interventions.

This sector could make not only the largest possible contribution but could also see through the swiftest turnaround. In the European Union alone, the circular economy The circular economy An economic model which does not focus on producing more and more goods, but in which consumption is based on using services – sharing, renting and recycling – instead of owning. Materials are not destroyed in the end, but are used to make new products over and over again. Open term page The circular economy scenario in our study could meet the European Commission’s proposal of net removal of 310Mt CO2/year from land use, land-use change and the forest sectors by 2030, while methane emissions from agriculture could fall by almost 90% by 2050. A circular shift in this sector could on its own halt biodiversity loss by 2035.

A circular shift in this sector could on its own halt biodiversity loss by 2035.

On top of that, a transition to a circular food system is important for more than just our climate and nature. It has other benefits, as we highlight in a recent article co-written with two experts from Chatham House. If we cut food waste and loss along the value chain, use farming practices that work with natural processes and use our fields to grow more food directly for people rather than for animal feed, we can reduce our demand for costly and difficult-to-access fertilisers and energy inputs.

This increases our resilience, serves as a buffer for future shocks and helps ensure food security.

The circular economy can add swift impetus to COP27 by tackling the key root causes of climate change

The Emissions Gap Report also highlights that GHG emissions are uneven across regions, countries and households, with the richest 1% responsible for 17% of total emissions. A similar pattern emerges for biodiversity loss, where the impacts are also largely outsourced.

The root cause of both crises is an extractive and linear economic system with overconsumption of natural resources at the heart of it. We built that economy.

The good news is that we can also build a different economic system – one fit for this century – and we already have many circular solutions right in front of us. When our collective resolve is limited and we need low-hanging fruits to rework our NDCs, the circular economy should be an obvious place to look. We don’t have much time, so our solutions should ideally deliver fast results and tackle multiple crises at once.

We already have many circular solutions right in front of us.

In November and December, respectively, COP27 and COP15 take place. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the biodiversity equivalent, IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), recently concluded that unless we solve the nature and climate crises together, we will fail at both.

This year’s World Circular Economy Forum takes place in Kigali, Rwanda, between the twin COPs. One of the topics will indeed be how the circular economy can deliver climate and nature benefits.

Hopefully see you there!

P.S. One COP27 side event, organised by the European Circular Economy Stakeholders Platform, will explore the potential of the circular economy in more detail on 12 November, with Nobel laureate Professor Lučka Kajfež Bogata and other speakers from Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius‘s cabinet, the European Economic and Social Committee, COPACOEGA, Lowmerism and IUCN.

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