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COP: 26. Is it already too late?

Mark Chapman, founder and CEO of the Zero Carbon Forum, offers some grounds for action, ambition and optimism in hospitality and catering

Following the 26th installment of the great political effort to find common ground on climate change, ‘is it too late’ is a question many now ask themselves. Did we blow our last shot at solving the defining crisis of our age? We’re yet to see political consensus to refute Grayling’s law that ‘Anything that CAN be done WILL be done if it brings advantage or profit to those who can do it’.

Or perhaps what’s over is time for being a bystander, and for finger pointing at big politics. In COP26’s wake can we now instead look closer to home at our role as hospitality businesses in steering away from the runaway impacts of climate change.

Decarbonising our businesses matters a great deal

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It is business that is being asked and trusted to deliver the decarbonisation we need, as governments everywhere give a thumbs up to industry led plans to decarbonise our economy.

So whilst it remains legal everywhere to continue to emit more than your fair share of carbon, for those reading the room, COP26 indicates the pace of regulatory and industrial overhaul will continue to gather. Countries will now ratchet up their targets every year (not every 5) and the political operating space for taxes on high carbon industries, and products is growing. Companies will continue to be asked more stringent questions by investors, regulators, markets, staff, suppliers, customers and by friends at dinner parties.

Food and drink businesses have a big role to play, and indeed, transforming our industry is totally essential. Even if all use of fossil fuels stopped everywhere in the world today, our global food system alone would push the planet past 1.5 of global warming. As a sector, food and drink is about 17% of the UK’s carbon footprint. (FDF), and business as usual for the sector would mean an increased footprint of up to 40% by 2050.

These kinds of stats are bandied around and thrown at part of our food system with increasing fervour, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Everything alive is made of carbon, and consumes it in spades in order to grow. If your business is serving lots of food, that is a carbon intensive operation. Almost everything on your menu has a carbon footprint greater than its own weight… (special mention for locally sourced lentils here). Meat, dairy and things arriving via plane in small quantities will have carbon footprints up to 100s of times their own weight.

As operators, we also tend to work in cramped spaces that need to be at markedly different temperatures. We cook over flame, we sear, we slow roast. We vacuum, we fast freeze. We put a lot of energy (and carbon) into the dishes before they reach the customer. Increasingly we then also put them in a car or van to reach our customers in the comfort of their own home. Up until recently this has been totally invisible, but as society pulls back this curtain, the social acceptability, desirability and the responsibility of food businesses will be challenged by our customers, our staff and our regulators.

Rapid decarbonisation must become a central part of business strategy, and is THE innovation strategy to grow sales, reach new customers, retain staff, and reduce costs.

Beyond your own operational impact and footprint, there’s also something that is becoming known as a carbon shadow… for now evading even the most sophisticated of spreadsheets, your carbon shadow is a philosophical measure of your impact on the culture and status quo. In your customers ideas, behaviours and habits. In concert as an industry, the way we speak to customers, the levers we pull to get them in the door adds up to an obesogenic tragedy of the commons. Feeding people, and hosting them is an intimate act, and offers far greater opportunity to influence them and shift their preferences and tastes than we currently deliver. There’s a huge opportunity to lead and influence rather than follow.

Net Zero: the best guide for action

The concept of Net Zero, simply put, asks you to reduce your own emissions as much as possible swiftly, leaving only those that are unavoidable, then use carbon removals to offset this remaining balance.
Thanks to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), and its collaborators, we now have a clear standard and framework for how to put a net zero plan in place that aligns to the Paris Agreement of 1.5 degrees of global warming. The Zero Carbon Forum is a not for profit org that has spent the last year collaborating with industry leaders in Hospitality and Brewing and mapping out what this pathway or roadmap can look like for our businesses. Here are the headlines:

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