Our biggest exporter and emitter had one man at the UN climate summit and his report-back on Fonterra’s website is misleading and complacent, writes fellow attendee Rod Oram

Fonterra is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products. Thanks to that, it is our biggest business and our largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Globally, agriculture, food production and associated changes in land use are the largest source of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions; they are also major causes of ecosystem degradation.

Farming and food can help solve those co-crises. But doing so requires big transformations of both. Thankfully, that’s underway around the world. It’s the best business opportunity farmers will ever have – if they understand it and seize it.

If you want to see these threats and opportunities up close and in deep detail, the UN climate negotiations are the best place by far to do so. They bring together every interested party imaginable to learn, commit and collaborate.

As it happens, good progress was made on all of the above at the latest negotiations, COP26 in Glasgow. Strong leadership by agri-businesses was a key factor.

“We call for more organisations to embrace climate action at COP26 and commit to reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Together, we can have a huge impact,” said Nestlé, the world’s largest food producer.

Nestle’s COP26 programme is here.

At COP26, I interviewed two senior Nestlé executives on its climate/sustainability goals, strategies and progress.

Nestlé is Fonterra’s largest customer. But the co-op has yet to set itself even a tiny target for reducing methane, which accounts for some 90 percent of its emissions, by any date, let alone 2030. It has merely expressed an “aspiration” to be net zero by 2050.

So what was Fonterra’s direct engagement with COP26?

Our largest business, exporter and emitter sent one person – Mark Casey, a trade strategy and stakeholder affairs manager based in Amsterdam. Yet, as he writes in his COP26 report posted on Fonterra’s website, he is “by no means an expert on climate change.”

Consequently, his report is wrong or misleading on a number of crucial issues. For example:

– Casey says COPs have two parts – inter-government negotiations; and “a mini expo with countries and industries having booths to hold panel events, discussions and showcase their country and its efforts towards climate change.”

He completely ignores the crucial third party at COPs. It is civil society, with many official delegates from science, research and academic institutions, NGOs and other credible organisations contributing to debates and progress. Their vigorous presence injects the voice and good sense of citizens into the government-business axis, pushing them to do more, faster.

Whenever farmers anywhere in the world ignore the valid concerns of the public, they eventually lose their social licence to operate. That’s true here too. Good farmers are understood and appreciated. But bad practices are not tolerated. Thus, Fonterra, as our largest emitter, is running a grave risk by failing to lead on climate.

– Casey gives far too narrow a verdict on the Global Methane Pledge. More than 100 countries backed the commitment to cut methane by 30 percent by 2030. It was one of the major achievements of COP26.

He says, though, it applies mainly to the oil and gas sectors. Yet, agriculture is the biggest human-induced source of methane. Which is why the likes of Nestlé and other enlightened agribusinesses, including dairy ones, are already achieving large reductions in methane. While Fonterra, in Casey’s words, is only promising “[r]eductions in this area by Fonterra will have a meaningful impact for New Zealand’s role in that global pledge.”

Sooner rather than later, the Pledge will push governments to ramp up the pressure on farmers to do more.

Some progressive New Zealand farmers are already doing so, as the precursor of our Climate Change Commission reported in 2019.

But Fonterra is not. In aggregate, it achieved only a 3.1 percent reduction in on-farm emissions in the past six years, according to its most recent sustainability report. That’s only half the 1 per cent a year reduction in methane intensity the NZ dairy sector has achieved over the past 25 years.

– Casey misrepresents the ambition of the Global Dairy Platform’s Pathways to Net Zero. He says it “is a group of dairy companies from around the world who work together to show the sector’s commitment for responsible and sustainable food production. They recently launched an initiative to accelerate climate change action in the dairy sector, which we [Fonterra] have signed up for.”

GDP says it will “reduce dairy’s emissions over the next 30 years.” But that’s neither a real target or a definitive deadline. Instead, GDP points out that 80 percent of global dairy emissions come from small farmers in developing countries. Counting them, the average dairy herd globally is three cows compared, for example, with more than 400 here in New Zealand.

Consequently, Pathways to Net Zero is completely devoid of big emission reduction commitments or other signs of bold leadership from major producers such as Fonterra.

Instead, they’re using the 130 million small dairy farmers around the world as an excuse for inaction. Essentially, they’re saying ‘we can’t make real progress until we bring the smallest farmers along on the journey’.

That’s as logical as Volkswagen saying: ‘Sorry, we can’t go big on EVs in developed countries until we’ve upskilled petrol and diesel mechanics in developing countries’.

In dairy, as in every other sector, it’s big companies that have the capital, science, expertise and incentive to drive serious transformation. They have to focus on their technology, business models and markets to drive their change.

Some of their solutions may ultimately be useful to small farmers elsewhere. But that transformation is far more the responsibility of the likes of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Anyway, Fonterra has given up its ambition to be an international dairy producer. It is entirely focused on milk production here. So it must take complete responsibility for its emissions – 20 percent of our total emissions – and drive very hard and fast to cut those.

– Casey has little to say about the intensifying global debates over diets, food, farming and land use – or the deep changes already underway in response to them. His verdict on Glasgow is:

“Agriculture is not expressly mentioned in the main COP26 agreement despite there being a number of panels and discussions related to our sector.”

Thus, he leaves the impression that agriculture was not high enough up the global agenda to warrant a mention in the Glasgow Climate Pact.

But like other previous COP final statements, the Pact made no mention either of electric vehicles, renewable electricity, solar panels, wind turbines, carbon capture and storage, carbon sequestration, sustainable aviation fuels, smart grids, circular economies, clean technology, sustainability or any other crucial technologies and practices for solving the climate crisis.

Instead, the Pact, like its predecessors, states the climate response principles agreed unanimously by the nations attending – 197 in the case of Glasgow. It did not dive down into second order issues such as how to decarbonise transport or how to turn agriculture from a main driver of the climate and biodiversity crises into one of the solutions.

Even the 2015 Paris Agreement, which broke the decade-long deadlock between nations and set us on our current path, was only 25 pages.

Overall, Casey’s report from Glasgow is superficial and complacent. It leaves the impression New Zealand farming is so good it doesn’t need to do much; and if it has to change a few things, it has plenty of time to chip away at them.

His report from COP26 fails to justify its hashtags of #INNOVATION, #GLOBAL, #SUSTAINABILITY.

Thus, next week’s column will examine how Fonterra’s climate goals and strategies stack up against those of its international competitors.

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