The controversial location set the scene for challenging words and uncomfortable debates (and, apparently, the consumption of quite a lot of Burgundy). Discomfort is nothing new to sustainability negotiations, and can be an important catalyst for transparency and compromise.
The opening mood was sombre. Recent statistics show that global temperatures last year were nearly 1.5° higher than the industrial average - the worst-case scenario of the Paris Agreement. We are now on track for a 2.8° increase, meaning swathes of current vineyards may no longer be viable - a message reinforced by an open letter from International Wineries for Climate Action, pleading for more assertive targets.
The main topics of this COP were fossil fuels, carbon markets, innovation and agriculture. Let’s look at what each of these might mean for the wines we love and drink today.
Sultan Al Jaber, heading COP28, said early in the conference that ‘there is no science…that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°’ and ‘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 hottest debate concerned the wording of any agreement to ‘phase out’ the use of fossil fuels; 80% of the world’s energy comes from oil, gas and coal. Eventually, a landmark agreement was reached, although the language was 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’. The interpretation of the final deal from Al Jaber was more positive: ‘we have delivered a robust action plan that is led by the science… a historic package to accelerate climate action’.
The proof will lie in the actions that follow the words, and our main take-away is that we must be bolder, faster, firmer and braver with our own climate adaption strategies. Otherwise, vineyards that are valuable may become worthless as temperatures rise - although the opposite may also be true. Icelandic wines, anyone?
There has been a lot of controversy in recent years about the trading of carbon, with terms such as offsetting and insetting being understandably treated with suspicion. This COP there was progress on bringing credibility and rigour to the reporting and trading of carbon as an asset. This means there is serious potential for the wine industry to confidently assess the sequestration potential of vineyards and habitats as a tangible financial asset.
Innovation and changes in energy technologies could have major implications for wine. Glass and transport are both fossil-fuel-intensive and we are heavily reliant on both, so expect to see incentivised development of alternatives, with focus on recycling, renewables and efficient energy. We can see this already, as glass manufacturers develop their hydrogen and ‘clean’ energy plans, distribution companies look to greener methods of transport, and governments consider recycling policies. We have also seen increased alignment on reporting methodologies, which will help wine businesses to plan and measure consistently.
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 indisputably core priorities. The number of climate refugees is predicted to be 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. For the wine industry there will be incentives for sustainable agriculture, as well as opportunities to regenerate land that has limited other potential.
The food and agriculture industry contributes around a third of the greenhouse gas emissions behind the rise in global temperatures. The countries that signed up to declaration 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 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 our ability to harness the power of the land. 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 only thing we cannot afford to do is nothing.