Boosting investment in restoring Earth’s biodiverse natural capital, so as to transition urgently towards a healthy, sustainable food future as well as keeping global warming to 1.5°C, is absolutely critical. At BNP Paribas Asset Management’s recent Investment Symposium, Professor Johan Rockström, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, pulls no punches in explaining why investment needs to be aligned with planet-healthy diets.
This article by Johan Rockström is part of our Investment Symposium Series, in which we present thinking on the big issues. For this series, we draw on the annual Investment Symposium. This is a central event where investment professionals from BNP Paribas Asset Management zoom in on the themes shaping the future. It is also a venue for high-level external speakers to cast a new light on the challenges of our time, testing our convictions and diversifying our thinking.
From a hard science perspective, the 1.5°C cap is a planetary boundary. However, even if every net zero emissions plan and every methane, deforestation and food transformation pledge is delivered upon in a best-case scenario, the world is still on track for 1.8-1.9°C higher temperatures.  Holding to the 1.5°C limit for the increase in global average temperature requires more.
An agriculture revolution in one generation
What is needed is to transition the global food system from being the single largest net source of emissions to becoming a net sink. That means an agricultural revolution must occur in one generation.
It also means maintaining the carbon sinks that still exist in our ecosystems, with their ability to absorb and store carbon in oceans and on land. In short, not allowing the global warming to exceed 1.5°C means staying within the planetary boundaries.
If we can move towards sustainably produced healthy food, we have a good chance of moving back to within safe planetary boundaries. That means not pushing Earth away from the state that saw the development of human civilisation over the past couple of millennia. This is the precondition for continued civilisation and development as we know it.
We are seeing extreme heat, rainfall, drought, and wildfire events in which the food system is the first victim. The irony is that if the food system is the No.1 cause of destabilising the climate and life support systems, it is also victim No.1 of its own negative impact: It is a case of food impacting Earth and Earth hitting back.
We face a series of interconnected pain points: a climate crisis; a health crisis; and an ecosystem crisis. As agriculture expands into intact wildlife habitats, there is a rising risk of zoonotic viral disease outbreaks – viruses such as the one causing Covid-19 that spill over from other species to humans. For a resilient post-Covid recovery, we must keep nature intact. This can be done only with smart agriculture.
Action is imperative
Even if we can hold the temperature rise to 1.5°C, we are potentially committing future generations to an irreversible sea level rise of at least two metres.  It would take 2 000 years, but it would be irreversible. At 2°C, the rise could be up to six metres – also irreversible. The question is, when do we push the buttons of unstoppable change?
Today, with the 2030 national emissions targets set so far, we are heading towards 2.4°C.  Although the Earth system is self-regulating, its CO2 absorption capacity is starting to show cracks.
We need to transition towards genuine nature-based solutions – restorative, regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems – as part of the active management of the biosphere. We cannot afford to lose land and sea carbon sinks because we will not be able to get them back into biomass and living ecosystems in time to avoid a drift away from a manageable climate system.
Real cost of global food system exceeds its market value
So, how can the food system be adapted so that it stops being the primary transgressor of planetary boundaries in terms of greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, land use expansion, freshwater use and the excessive application of fertilisers?
In addition to environmental harm, the food system is harmful to public health and the economy with its marketing of highly processed food loaded with saturated fat, sugar and salt. These products cause chronic disease and lead to the premature death of about 11 million people a year at considerable costs.
One study  puts the estimated costs of the hidden environmental, health, and economic harm of the food system at USD 12 trillion. That considerably exceeds the system’s total market value of USD 10 trillion. There’s a lot at stake here.
Adopting healthy diets will return humanity to a safe operating space
Embracing sustainable agricultural practices, cutting food loss and waste by 50%, and adopting the healthiest diets can bring us back within the safe operating space for climate and cropland use. This can also considerably alleviate the risks associated with the crossing of other planetary boundaries (for water use, fertiliser application, and biodiversity). 
This is an exciting opportunity with a win-win of health for people and health for the planet, simply by investing in healthy diets and sustainable food systems.
 See the Climate Action Tracker: https://climateactiontracker.org/press/Glasgows-one-degree-2030-credibility-gap-net-zeros-lip-service-to-climate-action/
 Based on the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/#SPM (Working Group 1, Summary for Policymakers, B5.4)
 A 2.4°C rise is estimated by the Climate Action Tracker as the warming to which we would be committed if all the nationally determined contributions play out https://climateactiontracker.org/press/Glasgows-one-degree-2030-credibility-gap-net-zeros-lip-service-to-climate-action/
 See section 2.3 (p.37) in https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-GlobalReport.pdf (methodology covered in in the Technical Annex Exhibit B, p.14, of https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-TechnicalAnnex.pdf)
 Based on https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext (see Fig. 6 in particular)