British supermarkets reaffirm 2030 environmental pledge and vow supplier focus after supply chain emissions increase

Image: Tesco

The commitment was first made by the supermarkets at COP26, as part of a joint collaboration with WWF. Tesco had already pledged to halve the environmental impact of the average shopping basked with WWF by 2030, setting the foundations for this broader piece of work.

Now, WWF has published the first annual progress report on the initiative, tracking the climate and nature impact of the average shopping basket and the steps the five supermarkets have taken to improve sustainability over the past year.

The report reveals that supermarkets have made some major strides to reduce the environmental footprint of their value chains. Strong progress is noted against indicators relating to packaging recyclability, food waste avoidance, sustainable sourcing and reducing Scope 2 (power-related) emissions. Scope 2 emissions can be tackled by improving energy efficiency and using cleaner sources of energy.

Nonetheless, in some areas, progress has been weak or non-existent. These include reducing overall packaging weight, improving sourcing standards for meat and dairy and eliminating deforestation in soy supply chains, including supply chains for animal feed. Supermarkets also reported challenges accessing data relating to food waste and emissions on farms. WWF is emphasising that, on a national level, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are not decreasing.

Backwards progress is recorded on Scope 3 (indirect) emissions, which have increased year-on-year. The WWF report states that this is a key cause for concern, as the grocery retail sector sees 97% of its overall emissions footprint falling within Scope 3.

In a bid to try and buck this trend, WWF and WRAP have launched a new collaborative workstream on addressing supply chain emissions. The signatories to the commitment will be supported to set approved Science-Based Targets that cover Scope 3 emissions, through the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). The SBTi is in the process of making a 1.5C alignment its minimum requirement and most companies with 1.5C-aligned targets have to cover their Scope 3 emissions.

Building on setting their own SBTi targets, the retailers will support their suppliers to set targets through the SBTi also.

WWF and WRAP have noted that the UK retail sector already has several industry collaborations working on consistent standards for supply chain emissions measurements and reporting, including IGD and the British Retail Consortium (BRC). They state that they support this work but would like to see the government introducing mandatory reporting to “create a level playing field”.

The NGOs are also urging the retailers to publish net-zero transition plans. Plans should set out investment trajectories over the coming decades in business model transformations, such as the shift towards plant-based food and regenerative and other low-carbon forms of agriculture.

“This report gives us the benchmarks to paint a picture of the environmental impact of most of the UK food retail sector,” said WWF’s chief executive Tanya Steele. “You can only change what you can measure, so we welcome the transparency from the supermarkets that shared their environmental data with us.”

Steele added: “Shoppers want to know that their purchases are not contributing to the destruction of our planet, so we urge other supermarkets to join the five who have committed to our goal to halve the environmental impact of our food shopping by 2030. But beyond words and commitments, we need action to reduce deforestation, nature loss and climate change – both from the retail sector and government. Food should be a cross-government priority – and a global one too.  Sustainable food systems must be at the heart of future negotiations on both climate change and biodiversity.”

Farmers’ call to action

COP27 is currently underway in Egypt and will run through to 17 November. For the first time, there is a day in the presidency agenda dedicated to food systems. A new Climate Agreement on Food and Farming was launched on Monday (7 November), entailing a 30% reduction in food systems emissions by 2030. No countries have signed up yet, unfortunately.

To coincide with COP27, organisations representing more than 350 million family farmers, fishers and forest producers have published an open letter urging international climate negotiations to include adaptation finance for their work. The letter also calls for more policy intervention to make low-input, low-carbon, diverse farming the norm.

The letter warns that the ‘global food system is ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change, even if we limit global heating to 1.5C’ and says ‘building a food system that can feed the world on a hot planet’ must be a priority for COP27.  

It emphasises that smallholders and other small-scale producers are responsible for around 80% of the food consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, but received less than 2% of climate finance flows in 2018.

The World Rural Forum’s director Laura Lorenzo summarised: “Food and agriculture have been side-lined in climate negotiations and the concerns of small-holder producers ignored. Small-scale family farmers need a seat at the table and a say in the decisions that affect us – from secure access to land and tenure, to accessing finance – if we are to rebuild our broken food system.”

A separate letter has also been sent by the international Fairtrade movement, calling on world leaders to ensure that “the needs of farming communities in historically disenfranchised regions around the world are prioritised in the COP27 outcome”. The letter is entitled ‘the climate clock is ticking’ and can be read in full here.

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