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Agreement achieved at historic climate talks, but what does it mean for agri-food businesses?

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Climate talks in Paris have achieved a universal agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to below 2°C. This article outlines the key messages that agri-food businesses should take away from the new agreement, along with ADAS expert insights into the actions businesses should be taking to mitigate, adapt and build resilience to climate and extreme weather threats.

Agreement achieved at historic climate talks, but what does it mean for agri-food businesses? talks in Paris have reached a fundamental conclusion with universal agreement attained from almost 200 nations to tackle climate change.

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), commonly known as COP21, was chaired and hosted by France.

Between 30 November and 11 December 2015, crucial talks commenced in Paris to agree on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, creating a new international agreement on climate change to keep global warming below 2°C (3.6°F) with an aspiration of 1.5°C (2.7°F).

Why was an agreement so important to achieve?

Since the industrial revolution, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change has occurred at unprecedented rates, fuelled by large quantities of GHG emissions being released into the atmosphere.

Figures from the Moana Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the longest record of direct measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the world, indicate that annual levels of CO2 will exceed 400 ppm in 2015, a 42% increase on pre-industrial levels.

Figure.1 Changes in atmospheric COe concentrations since direct measurements began in 1958.












Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) concentrations have increased 20% and 150% respectively in the same period.

To put this in perspective, human activities have increased CO2 concentrations by 20 ppm in the last 10 years alone, a process that took 8,000 years prior to the industrial revolution. Ice core records indicate that both CO2 and methane levels are currently higher than any point in the past 650,000 years, highlighting the impact human activities have had.

What are the consequences of increasing greenhouse gases?

Increased levels of GHGs have been attributed to warming of the earth’s surface and oceans, which in turn has led to regional changes in climate, sea level rise, intensification of the water cycle and changing weather patterns.

According to the IPCC, global mean surface temperature increases of more than 2°C will have disastrous and irreversible consequences for global climate systems, including an increase in the number of extreme climate events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves as well as greater sea level rise.

The Met Office and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) indicate that global average surface temperature in 2015 is likely to be the warmest on record, and for the first time, reach the symbolic and significant milestone of 1°C (1.8°F) above pre-industrial levels.

Due to the lifetime that GHGs stay in the atmosphere, it is also very likely that we are committed to another 0.5°C of warming, even if emissions were significantly curbed tomorrow, suggesting that 1.5°C is almost inevitable.

In the UK, the climate is expected to be warmer and wetter in winter and hotter and drier in the summer. Extreme weather events are expected to become more common and severe, including heavier rainfall (e.g. Cumbria floods in December 2015), higher temperatures (e.g. 2,000 heat related deaths during the August 2003 heatwave) and rising sea levels (e.g. coastal erosion in Norfolk).

These changes will have a direct impact on agricultural production and influence changing consumption patterns, but while extreme weather may have some serious negative effects in the UK, there could also be some new opportunities including different crops and potentially higher crop yields.

As a result, even with ambitious emission reductions, businesses, communities and nations will need to adapt to projected changes in the climate that include an increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

What are the key messages from the COP21 Paris Agreement?

The COP21 climate talks have reached a partly legally binding and partly voluntary agreement. The fundamental outcome is that all nations have agreed the need for action, demonstrating political commitment to tackling climate change. This is big step from the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 which failed on this front.

The key measures outlined in the Paris Agreement are based on nations now submitting clear proposals for emission reductions in order to:

  • Reach peak GHG emissions as soon as possible;
  • Achieve a balance between sources and sinks of GHGs in the second half of this century;
  • Keep global temperature increase below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C;
  • Review progress every five years;
  • Recognise the social, economic and environmental value of voluntary mitigation actions and their co-benefits for adaptation, health and sustainable development.
  • Achieve $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future for mitigation and adaptation.

The agreement will endeavour to “increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low GHG emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production”.

There is no doubt that the agreement makes a positive step towards addressing one of the greatest problems facing mankind. However, the Paris pledge alone will not meet the proposed 2°C degree target and further negotiations will be required, both at a political level and business level.

What does this mean for agriculture and food security?

Without action there could be serious impacts across the globe as agricultural production becomes more volatile in the face of rising populations. Global agriculture is expected to be severely adversely affected by climate change due to changes in rainfall, rising temperatures, variability and seasonality, and extreme events (heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods and desertification).

The United Nations estimate that global population levels will increase by 30% to 9.7 billion in 2050. Crucially, around three quarters of the global population lives in Asia and Africa, continents already associated with extreme poverty, food shortages and high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The entire agricultural sector, both at home in the UK and further afield, needs to identify mitigation strategies to help prevent catastrophic climate change, as projected in worst case scenarios. In addition, the implementation of adaptation measures to address the impacts projected in climate models and to some extent already being experienced on the ground, will be critical to ensure security of supply. Failure to act will lead to considerable reductions in food productivity and food security at local, regional and global scales.

There is a need to increase food production significantly to meet demand, but this will need to be done efficiently and sustainably, requiring a multi-pronged approach which: minimises the GHG emissions produced in agriculture; ensures adaptation measures are incorporated into operations; and adopts sustainable intensification practices to increase food production whilst enhancing the environment.

The responsibility of meeting these changes spans the entire agricultural sector from farm to fork, with agri-food businesses playing a crucial role in ensuring their operations, suppliers and supply chains are sustainable and fit for purpose in the long-term.

What can agri-food businesses do?

Agri-food businesses can address climate change in two core ways, firstly through mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus contributing to international reduction targets, and secondly to adapt to the impacts that climate change will have, both on operations and in the supply chain.

Drive reductions in GHG emissions throughout the supply chain

Current estimates suggest around 15% of global GHG emissions are produced through agriculture such as livestock digestion processes, stored animal manure, nitrogen fertilisers and land change, particularly deforestation to create land for livestock and palm oil. Climate and extreme weather impacts on food production will get progressively worse for many regions as the climate continues to warm, whilst demand for food will continue to grow, creating increased pressure on farming globally. Conversely, there will also be some regions such as Scotland and Scandinavia for example which may benefit from climate change (warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons etc.) as more favourable growing conditions shift northwards.

Reducing GHG emissions is usually accompanied by efficiency savings so can be win-win. Many businesses have already tackled direct emissions within their organisation, such as energy use, to reduce their own carbon footprint, but a report by CDP suggests that too few companies are engaging their suppliers on GHG emissions, with only a quarter of 4,000 companies disclosing that they had engaged with their supply chains. The whole supply chain can benefit from a more proactive and collaborative approach and commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

For example, Kellogg’s recently announced a goal to reduce its GHG emissions by 65% across its own operations, and to reduce their supply chain emissions by 50% by 2050. The commitment will see the company work with its suppliers to find ways for them to reduce their carbon footprints, thereby addressing the source of GHGs in their supply chain as well as their core operations.

Another example is PepsiCo who have been working with ADAS since 2010 to help potato growers in their supply chain to reduce GHG emissions from potato production by 50% in five years. The 50 in 5 initiative reflects PepsiCo’s commitment to helping the sector manage a range of economic and environmental challenges including food security, climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity.

Implementing adaptation measures to build resilience

There are some very real and tangible short and long term benefits of a proactive approach to climate and extreme weather threats. Businesses which assess the risks to their operations and supply chains now will increase the long term sustainability of their products and services, improve resilience to recover from unexpected events and ensure security of supply.

Small and large agri-food businesses in the UK can act now by firstly assessing the risks that extreme weather events present to their current operations and supply chains, for example:

  • Increased occurrence of heat-stroke, dehydration and sunburn to outdoor workers;
  • Availability of shade for heat stress in livestock and crops;
  • Flooding of property, land and produce;
  • Waterlogging of fields, loss of crops and damage to soils;
  • Changes in pests and disease pressures;
  • Loss of access to fields, farm and property during floods and heavy snow;
  • Loss of power or energy during storms and high winds.

Adaptation measures come in many forms and are tailored to the individual needs of a business and its supply chain, but could include drawing up recovery plans for extreme weather events, building reservoirs on farm to increase water security, changing varieties of crops used in food products which are more resilient to warmer conditions, or reducing the complexity of supply chains to reduce the vulnerability of disruption.

The implementation of such measures can avoid harm, damage or disruption to products/services; ensure rapid recovery from unexpected weather events through clear contingency plans; improve security of supply through well-versed communication with your supply chain; and achieve a competitive edge through minimising the risk of adverse weather conditions.

ADAS can help you with individual business and supply chain climate adaptation and mitigation strategies through carbon footprinting services, global risk mapping, climate change risk assessments and sustainable procurement consultancy. We can reduce risk in your business, build resilience to ensure security of supply and capitalise on economically viable cost saving opportunities. For more information, please visit ADAS’s Climate Change Adaptation and Business Resilience webpage or email Charles Ffoulkes (

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