BALFRON, SCOTLAND - MARCH 16: Holstein cows are milked at Clayland farm on March 16, 2016 in Balfron, Scotland. Many farmers across the country are voicing concerns that Brexit could be a dangerous step into the unknown for the farming industry. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nestlé wants cows' diets to be adjusted to cut down on methane emissions © Getty

Nestlé will cut greenhouse gas emissions across its operations and supply chain to net zero by 2050, setting in train what are likely to be sweeping changes among the coffee growers, dairy farmers and packaging companies that supply the world’s biggest food company.

The Swiss group joins a movement of large corporations that are speeding up their climate change efforts in response to faster than expected global warming.

More than 600 companies have signed up to plans to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels set out in the 2016 Paris climate accord, according to a coalition of non-governmental organisations tracking the commitments. About 50 businesses have adopted targets in line with scientists’ latest recommendations for a 1.5C limit.

Nestlé’s move comes amid bruising international climate negotiations ahead of a UN Climate Action summit next week in New York.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face as a society,” Mark Schneider, Nestlé chief executive, said on Thursday. “It is also one of the greatest risks to the future of our business.”

The company faces a tough task. Its direct greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 17 per cent since 2010 but still amount to 3.3m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. Indirect emissions of 2.5m tonnes a year, from farms to supermarkets, may prove harder to cut.

Nestlé produces or uses 1.7m tonnes of plastic a year, less than Coca-Cola’s 3m tonnes but far more than the 610,000 tonnes of Unilever, which has made a similar pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Its baby formula and ice-cream businesses give it a big presence in the high-emission dairy sector.

Promising a detailed plan within two years, Nestlé said its efforts would initially focus on three areas.

The company will launch more plant-based food and drinks. It will work towards using only renewable energy. And it will expand initiatives to cut emissions from agriculture, for example by tweaking diets of dairy cows to cut their methane output.

“This is a humongous change in how we do business,” said Magdi Batato, head of operations. “It won’t be easy since we’re trying to effect change in a value chain that we do not control entirely.”

Nestle has decided not to buy carbon credits to offset its emissions and achieve its 2050. The practice has been criticized by green campaigners as a way for companies to avoid cutting their own pollution.

Nigel Topping, chief executive of We Mean Business, a non-profit coalition working with business to spur the conversion to a low-carbon economy, said the pledges by big foodmakers were especially important. This was because they could influence agriculture and land use, where change has proven particularly difficult.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions.

“Now that Nestlé and Unilever have taken the lead in the sector, I’d expect others to follow,” Mr Topping said.

Letter in response to this article:

Pledges on waste are the logical next step / From Nigel Harris, Chief Executive Officer, Tearfund, Teddington, Middlesex, UK

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