What We Learned at COP27 (and What We Didn’t)
The food system finally played a key role, but our esteemed Oatly correspondent was left wanting more.
JAN 10, 2023
In November, Oatly attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference for the second time. Some might consider that the start of a streak until they realize this was Climate COP number 27 and the first one dates way back to 1995 (when we were but a wee oat-drink brand).
The core of COP consists of intricate climate negotiations, but for those who may not know, there are also dozens of pavilions that host panel discussions and debates between representatives of national delegations, trade organizations, and coalitions. It’s a little like a trade show of climate-change philosophies and commitments.
Why does Oatly go to COP, you ask? For a lot of reasons. Most important, we feel it’s our duty to bring attention to the historically ignored topic of the global food system.
We love reminding people that about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. We do it all the time, actually. So, when pavilions at COP 27 introduced programming around the food system, we made sure to partner with one. (It was called the Food4Climate Pavilion and included panels with snappy titles like “Young Voices on the Urgent Need for Food System Transformation” and “Advancing the Plant-Based Revolution: A Discussion with Businesses Disrupting Food Systems.”)
And as we were happily educating and getting educated about the food system, we also wondered, How can we make sure policymakers attending COP know what they’re missing?
This might come as a surprise, but climate-policy changes and updates are mostly settled by the time the conference rolls around. Debates primarily involve whittling down some final tricky pieces of policy and choosing where the commas go (though commas are very important).
So, we at Oatly thought it would be a generous gesture to just tell policymakers what we learned at COP 27. For that, we asked the assistance of Sara Fletcher, communications and public affairs director for Oatly North America, who, along with Sustainable Eating and Public Affairs Director Cecilia McAleavey, attended COP 27 and took part in and moderated panels.
Allow Sara to enlighten everyone about her experience while giving policymakers a heads-up on a few things they might want to consider ahead of COP 28 in Dubai.
This perfectly placed photo illustrates that Sara Fletcher now has the microphone.
Behold! Sara’s own words:
Sharm el-Sheikh was a fascinating host for COP. It’s an Egyptian resort town on a beautiful coral reef right next to the desert. So, to see 35,000 people--policymakers, NGOs, activists, and real-life citizens from across the globe--descend upon it was overwhelming (and a little terrifying). Those moments were in stark contrast to how desolate and spread out the conference felt at times. Which reminds me of the men in full suits and dress shoes standing alone in the middle of the desert, keeping an eye on security. I wonder if they’re enjoying a comfortable chair right now.
COP 27 had that new-car smell to it. Archways were being stained when we arrived, and it looked like paint on the bike lanes had just dried. Shiny coach buses crawled through the kind of traffic you find on annoying levels of Frogger. And understanding their routes was a constant puzzle--probably because they didn’t exist a month ago. I know this because a teenage waiter told me, and I make sure to always believe teenagers.
“Next year the goal is to see the food system on the main agenda. Because it should be.”
I really didn’t expect it to be so much of a circus. It was sometimes easy to forget climate-policy negotiations were even taking place. In years past, public engagement amounted to NGOs running around on the fringes of the negotiations, trying to get their points heard. Today’s COP is a much more visible event for the “green economy.”
All together, about 100 delegation pavilions filled six buildings the size of airplane hangars. Some pavilions resembled lemonade stands; others could have doubled as car dealerships. Most had packed schedules of thought-leadership programming, the very idea of which might make anyone want to curl up in a corner and weep quietly. But it wasn’t just passionless LinkedIn posts come to life. The topics at moderated panels and fireside chats ranged from the future of agriculture to who pays for climate-related disasters.
And in amazing news, it seemed as if every pavilion I walked by featured something related to food and agriculture. It was actually inspiring. (I’m inspired!) Last year there were zero pavilions focused on the food system--this year there were five. Plus, a whole day was dedicated to agriculture. Next year the goal is to see the food system on the main agenda. Because it should be.
Just in case you needed proof that Oatly cartons also attended COP 27.
Less Burgers, More Common Sense
One glaring thing I noticed was that animal products were at the top of every menu. You’d think doing away with beef burgers at the most significant climate-action event on the planet might send a good message (to be fair, there were “not-beef” options). Not only are animal products responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions on their own, livestock accounts for one-third of global methane. And reducing methane still represents the fastest route to slowing global warming (as has been pointed out).
The U.N. itself has said that shifting more people toward plant-rich diets would be a major lever to pull in the fight against climate change. Take it from good old Hans-Otto Pörtner at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2019, he said, “We don’t want to tell people what to eat. But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
“I’ve met countless farmers, both at COP and outside of it, who are done with the status quo.”
So, how about those political incentives? We’re not seeing them, and I didn’t hear them come up at COP. In the United States--where I live my non-COP life--there’s no consideration of environmental impact in dietary guidelines. And while European countries develop their own guidelines, the European Union is only just now starting to evaluate its broader approach with the Farm to Fork strategy.
“Farmer” Isn’t a Dirty Word
One point that was repeatedly emphasized at COP? That conversations about the food system--whether they focus on biodiversity, production, innovation, or nutrition--need to happen at the same table. Not in silos, as they so often do. The food system as a whole is responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And those facing the climate emergency firsthand, whether farmers battling weather or consumers braving supply chains, need to be in an open dialogue.
During Oatly’s panel, “Change-Maker Farmers Tackling the Climate Emergency,” Nebraskan farmer Graham Christensen emphasized that a key to success is the development of local and global relationships. The builder of farmer coalitions himself, Graham noted that though the challenges he’s facing might on the surface seem different from other farmers’ challenges, their similarities shouldn’t be ignored. Farmers from around the world should be working on these issues together.
Hearing from actual farmers like Graham filled a void for me at COP. I feel like one reason policymakers don’t want to talk about people eating more plant-based diets is the impact it could have on farmers and other food producers. (That’s the food system, my friends!)
“Forget the PR and the stumping. COP was at its best when the focus felt organic . . . and global.”
After almost 30 years of talking about climate change, why aren’t we talking about the transition for farmers with real farmers? Previous COPs have tackled industry transition to the green economy in sectors such as oil and gas and manufacturing, but talking about the evolution of farming remains a big no-no.
And farmers stand to gain so much! Introducing practices that build soil health, improve water quality, and diversify crops sets up their businesses for long-term growth and health. I’ve met countless farmers, both at COP and outside of it, who are done with the status quo. They’re interested in making communities stronger and bringing life back to the land.
A Global Conversation Piece
A focus on community also relates to cross-cultural dialogues, something there is no lack of at COP. Honestly, I arrived at Sharm el-Sheikh pretty skeptical, sure that the thought-leadership forums and glitzy climate commitments were about scoring political and corporate brownie points. And, well ... confirmed. There is a decent amount of that.
But some words of wisdom in particular stuck with me--or maybe it was several conversations that melted together in my brain as a result of the heat and exhaustion. In short, we’ve got a fat chance of making it out of this climate crisis if we’re only relying on government climate negotiators locked in a room. Forget the PR and stumping. COP was at its best when the focus felt organic ... and global. When representatives from countries all over the world--from backgrounds all over the world--joined together in a single, focused dialogue.
The hope is for conversations about the global food system to consist of much more than small talk.
Case in point: When I struck up a conversation with a postdoctoral researcher whose work centered on climate finance and energy in Africa, I recognized right away that our climate interests didn’t clearly overlap. We both did. Still, during President Biden’s speech, we connected over our skepticism and disillusionment about the negotiations process. We bickered about Boston and New York, talked about balancing life and work, and found common ground.
Later in the week, when we ran into one another again, we talked about mosquito bites and an overwhelming desire to take a nap--which, for me, signaled that it was high time to bid adieu to my inaugural COP. After I side-eyed a final few name badges and caught my last sighting of Frankie, the life-sized velociraptor warning against our imminent extinction, I knew it was time to get back to work. For all of us to get back to work.