Why your company's use of land matters more than you think - Sustainability Spotlight

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Ben Cooper looks at how the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will influence drinks manufacturers' greenhouse gas emissions strategies.

Drinks companies use of land for raw materials is now under the sustainability spotlight

Drinks companies' use of land for raw materials is now under the sustainability spotlight

Much of the reaction to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 'Climate Change & Land' report, published earlier this month, focused on the challenge the food sector faces in reducing meat consumption in favour of plant-based protein. While beverage producers are not exposed to this defining land-use issue in their agricultural supply chains, the overarching themes in the report are as relevant to drinks manufacturers as they are to food companies.

The report provides the IPCC's most detailed analysis to date of the relationship between land use and climate change. It sets out the crucial role land and forests play in carbon sequestration but warns that agriculture, forestry and other land uses are a cause of climate change, principally owing to deforestation, the expansion of livestock agriculture, peatland degradation and the overuse of fertilisers. The report also warns that if current trends continue, land will cease to be a carbon sink and become a net source of carbon emissions.

The overall message is that land itself is a resource, and this needs to be reflected not only in policy but in the carbon strategies and targets of companies with agricultural or forestry supply chains.

Many of the sustainable agriculture initiatives food and drinks companies have put in place have climate benefits, thereby contributing to a company's overall greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. The IPCC report, however, underlines the potential for land-use change to contribute far more, particularly with regard to carbon dioxide removal.

Last week, Molson Coors became the latest drinks company to align its emissions targets with the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), a partnership established by CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature, to assess and verify companies' science-based emissions targets and promote best practice. Science-based targets are defined as being consistent with the goals of the Paris Climate Accord to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. Molson Coors' commitment to reduce emissions from its direct operations by 50% by 2025 was deemed consistent with the more ambitious 1.5°C pathway.

As it stands, GHG impacts relating to land-use change are not included in the science-based target framework, but this is set to change. Cynthia Cummis, director of private-sector climate mitigation at the World Resources Institute (WRI), says SBTI is currently assessing how the latest IPCC report should inform how science-based targets are defined for the food and beverage sectors.

Last month, US-based food manufacturer Mars outlined how it has incorporated land-use change into its emissions strategy. Two years ago, Mars set an ambitious goal to hold its total land use at current levels, with any growth in the business to be met by using existing agricultural land more efficiently. The group's global VP of sustainability, Kevin Rabinovitch, said that integrating land-use change into its carbon targets was helpful from a business standpoint as, rather than having carbon targets and deforestation goals, the company has "deforestation objectives that deliver against our carbon goals".

Mars has been a pioneer in emissions target-setting and is ahead of its peers in the food and drinks sectors in its approach to accounting for land-use change. Adopting science-based targets is accepted as an indicator that a company is making an ambitious commitment to GHG emissions reductions, but Cummis points out that incorporating land-use change into these targets is not a requirement.

There is a further problem, Cummis adds. "There hasn't really been an agreed accounting method for how to assess land-use change, so it's been difficult for GHG protocols, and the SBTI, to require it, and for companies to be able to even track progress against a target in a credible way. There hasn't been a standardised approach."

With this in mind, WRI is about to begin work on developing GHG protocol guidance as to companies should be accounting for emissions from land-use change. Crucially, this guidance will look to incorporate carbon dioxide removal opportunities. "Right now, GHG protocol says you should report removals separately from emissions, so that also has been limiting for companies that have science-based targets," Cummis tells just-drinks. "It limits their opportunities to look at how they can balance these emissions and removals from land."

In light of this month's IPCC report, it seems likely - and desirable - that the gold standard for carbon reduction targets will be one that allows not only for the incorporation of land-use change, according to a standard methodology, but also the facility to balance emissions and sequestration.

Major drinks companies are working increasingly closely with their agricultural suppliers on numerous sustainable agriculture initiatives. Increasing the emphasis on enhancing the capacity of soil to absorb carbon, which can be achieved by measures such as introducing new plant varieties, agroforestry and changing crop rotations, could have a direct and positive impact on drinks companies' progress towards their ambitious GHG goals.

The increasing focus on land use has also informed the latest guidance on GHG emissions from the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), a technical coalition of the world's largest drinks producers seeking to work together to drive progress on environmental sustainability. BIER executive director Nick Martin says body's latest 'GHG Sector Guide v4.1' has been updated, in part to align with land-use change guidance within the European Commission's 'Product Environmental Footprint' initiative. 

"From a BIER perspective, we have long appreciated the importance of looking at sustainability efforts holistically and as a system of connections between water, air, land and biodiversity," Martin says. "They all play an important role and the dynamics are very local. Land-use considerations play a major role in community watershed engagement projects supported by our members throughout the world, whether connected to water retention, reforestation, climate adaptation, water quality and runoff, or other locally-focused objectives."

In recent years, BIER has sought to help its member companies become more informed about how working with farmers on soil quality can contribute to GHG goals, Martin adds. The organisation has also engaged with notable external stakeholders in this area, including the Carbon Cycle Institute, Yale University Quick Carbon Project and Green America Carbon Farming Innovation Network.

However, reinforcing Cummis' observations, Martin adds: "While the potential for carbon sequestration is significant, the methodologies and technologies to measure and implement effectively at scale are still lagging."

A separate report from the IPCC late last year on the likelihood, at current rates of progress, of limiting global warming to a 1.5°C rise offered a bleak prognosis but has at least heightened public concern and introduced a renewed sense of urgency to collective efforts. The Climate Change & Land report should also give new impetus to emissions reduction efforts.

More importantly, it will help improve companies' understandings of how land-use change can contribute to overall GHG objectives.

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