The United Arab Emirates was a contentious host for the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, and Sultan Al Jaber oversaw two weeks of tense negotiations and fractious debates under the Dubai sunshine. The stage was set with the recent news that global temperatures last year were nearly 1.5° higher than the industrial average, the number that the Paris Agreement saw as the point of no return. The current trajectory predicts a 2.8° increase, meaning swathes of current vineyards may no longer be viable.
The phasing out of fossil fuels was always going to be the most controversial topic, given the reserves of the host nation, despite its exposure to the effects of climate change. Early in the conference Al Jaber controversially said, “There is no science.. that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°”. “It will not allow sustainable development unless you.. take the world back into caves”, Bill Hare (chief executive of Climate Analytics) said that those words were “revealing, worrying and belligerent… verging on climate denial…. The science is absolutely clear [and] that means a phase-out by mid-century”.
The debate over language led to the over-running of the conference. While over 100 countries wanted to commit to ending global reliance on oil, gas and coal (80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels), the wording was eventually weakened to ‘transition away’ rather than ‘phase out’. Mark Campanale (Carbon Tracker) summed up the final agreement as ‘representing some progress’ but still a ‘compromised ending’. In the end, the agreement was a landmark first step in that it cites fossil fuels at all, although not going far enough – a message reinforced in an open letter from International Wineries for Climate Action, pleading for more assertive and specific fossil fuel reduction targets. We have already seen the devastating reality of climate change impacts on wine growing regions around the world, from water shortages and drought to forest fires, hurricanes and unexpected deep freezes.
Looking at positive actions that can be taken, there was also focus on innovation in energy technologies. The wine industry is inextricably entwined with the glass and transport industries, and we should expect to see incentivised development of alternatives, especially recycling, renewables and efficient energy. Glass manufacturers are developing their hydrogen and ‘clean’ energy plans, distribution companies are working on greener methods of transport and energy sources, and governments are (slowly) considering recycling policies and infrastructure. How investment is funnelled towards these industries will be worth watching over the next two to five years.
“Abatement technologies” were also subject of discussions at COP, which may finally provide the impetus for investment in those industries. These are innovations that enable carbon capture and storage. While these have potential, and are an obvious lifeline for fossil-fuel heavy economies, their importance in the final agreement was downgraded.
This COP also breathed new life into carbon markets, building on work that Mark Carney (former governor of the Bank of England) has been doing to bring credibility to this controversial concept. When you measure your emissions (including Scope 3), you find your own Net Zero position. If you are left with positive carbon equity, you can either keep it (for example to set against the emissions used in building a new winery in the future), or you can sell it.
A new agreement has been reached at COP to improve the robustness and integrity of these markets, making them a viable tool in Net Zero ambitions. The wine industry may be able to benefit from using our land to create opportunities through measured biodiversity, habitat preservation and restoration. Vineyards have relatively high sequestration potential and some wineries already measure their carbon ‘balance’. It has recently been estimated that the value of carbon will rise from around £25 a tonne now to £500 a tonne in 2050, making this a potentially tangible incentive for sustainable vineyard operations.
Finally, a clear focus area of this year’s COP has been agriculture and health. Climate resilience and the stability of our global food systems were centre stage – food and water supply being the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There was also an encouraging 2030 global deforestation goal in the UAE Consensus, along with positive wording on the role played by indigenous communities. Climate refugees are predicted to number 1bn after 2050, and a fund was launched by which wealthy countries support the more vulnerable to develop climate adaption policies and renewable energy supplies (originally proposed in the Paris Agreement). For the wine industry there will be incentives for sustainable agriculture, as well as opportunities to regenerate land that has limited other uses.
The food and agriculture industry contributes around a third of the greenhouse gas emissions that are behind the rise in global temperatures. The countries that signed up to the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action represent 75% of all emissions linked to global food production and consumption. Kate Norgrove (WWF) says that “our current food system accounts for 30% of climate emissions and 60% of biodiversity loss, so we can’t tackle climate change without transforming the way we produce and consume food” – and wine will therefore be included in the Net Zero by 2050 target. In order to create a pragmatic roadmap to that target we have also seen increasing consensus on reporting methodologies that will underpin sustainability disclosure standards – and all larger businesses will find themselves needing to align with these over the coming 12-18 months.
In summary, this has been a tale of good COP vs bad COP: against the threat of rising temperatures, a key positive for the wine industry is the ability we have to harness the power of the land. I also have it on good authority that the warm evenings were enjoyed with large glasses of Mâcon-Villages, so we still have the ability to ease debates and ‘oil’ agreements. Whether you focus on terroir and regenerative agriculture, or technology and innovation within production, there are opportunities to be grasped and risks to be managed.
The key message for the wine industry is that temperatures are rising inexorably, and we require an economic shift as the world moves to different types of energy.
The only thing we cannot afford to do is nothing.
Photo by Maxim Tolchinskiy on Unsplash