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Carbon emissions

Last Updated on January 11, 2021 by Nick Baskett

Over 9.5 billion kg of coffee is produced annually, with a total trade value of US $30.9 billion and demand is expected to triple by 2050. So a serious study on the sustainability of the industry is worth paying attention to.

In new research, which is packed full of interesting material and worth a read, the researchers consider in part that changing how coffee is grown, transported and consumed can reduce the crop’s carbon emissions by up to 77%, although a practical implementation of the findings are likely to be some way off.

The researchers also wanted to know what types of coffee where the most injurious to the environment. Put down that latte, because I’m afraid it came out top of the list. Those cows where the milk comes from, I’m afraid, turn out not to be very eco-friendly. Fortunately, for our espresso-loving editor, Nick the humble espresso was the least offensive as an absolute number. However, before Nick starts to gloat, it was the worst when measured by the gram.

In a carbon footprint analysis of six coffee products, Hassard et al. (2014) calculated the highest impact for the latte (224 g CO2 per serving), followed by canned coffee (223 g CO2 per serving), with the lowest impact calculated for espresso coffee (49 g CO2 per serving).

Interestingly, it is milk that is worse for the environment than coffee, in fact producing coffee is 4 times worse than milk for the environment. The issues is that we put a lot more milk in our latte’s than we do espresso, and therein lies the problem.

The increasing global demand for environmentally friendly products has pushed a rapid acceleration of sustainability initiatives among coffee producers and retailers. The study attempted to quantify the greenhouse gas emission rate of Arabica coffee produced in Brazil and Vietnam and exported to the United Kingdom. Brazil and Vietnam were chosen as they are the two largest coffee producing countries, with Brazil being the world’s largest producer of coffee beans, responsible for around 30% market share.

Since 2008, coffee production in Brazil and Vietnam has increased by 60% and 165% on average, respectively, in comparison to average 1990–2007 levels. In the 2017/2018 season, Brazil produced over 3 million metric tons of coffee (51 million bags), of which 60% was exported, whilst Vietnam produced 1.8 million metric tons of coffee (30 million bags), of which approximately 80% was exported.

The average carbon footprint of Arabica coffee from both countries and exporting to the UK was calculated as 15.33 per kilogram.

This number above represents unroasted green coffee, when using conventional production methods.

The sustainable coffee production model espoused by the researchers could, they claim, reduce carbon emissions significantly by switching the method of shipping to cargo ship instead of using freight flight, and achieve further reductions by minimising agrochemical inputs, creating a net result of 3.51 kilogram of CO₂ produced per kg of coffee.

Based on their results, further reductions could be made through optimal use of agrochemicals; reduced packaging; more efficient water heating; renewable energy use; roasting beans before exportation; and carbon offsetting.

Applying these recommendations correctly through certification schemes could mitigate other environmental impacts of coffee cultivation, say the researchers. In fact companies have realised the marketing opportunities of being ‘certified’, and five major organisations exist that offer a certification scheme. Of these five, the Rainforest Alliance was found to be the most effective and ambitious.

Most of the schemes have focused on improving yield and productivity of the farmer, which in turn has a positive impact on the environment since less land needs to be farmed for the same output. But all certification schemes have difficulties in developing a complete sustainability picture, since the industry supply chain is so complex and parts of it are de-coupled.

For example, when the green beans are roasted in the local consuming market, each roaster will have their own environmental footprint. Then the packaging and transport used, and even how the coffee is made and presented all add more variables to the equation.

Here is a graph comparing the carbon footprint of different types of coffee beverages:

A graph comparing the carbon footprint of different types of coffee beverages.

The average cup of coffee contains about 18g of green coffee, so 1 kg of it can make 56 espressos. Just one espresso has an average carbon footprint of about 0.28 kg, but it could be as little as 0.06 kg if grown, processed and shipped according to their sustainably guidelines.

Dairy coffee’s such as lattes have a carbon footprint of about 0.55 kg, cappuccinos on 0.41 kg and flat whites on 0.34 kg. But when the coffee is produced sustainably, these values fall to 0.33 kg, 0.2 kg and 0.13 kg respectively.

Using non-dairy milk alternatives is one way to make white coffee more green, although getting everyone to adopt non-dairy milk might be a challenge.

The study documents further potential ways to reduce of the carbon footprint of coffee production, such as:

  • Use of recycled materials in packaging
  • Increasing efficiency in water heating with coffee machines – something we covered in our review of the Victoria Arduino Eagle One
  • Use of renewable energy sources to power farming equipment
  • Roasting the coffee beans in the producing country making them lighter to transport (thus viable by air?)
  • Replacing chemical fertilisers with organic waste

With growing competition and global coffee demand, retailers are increasingly transporting coffee beans via freight flight to get fresher coffee. This makes it unlikely that they will switch back to cargo ship transport, despite the large climate change mitigation potential, exposing the need for a tax on aviation fuel and/or a tax on flying luxury goods such as coffee.

On the other hand, as previously reported, craft premium chocolate is trending like Fortnum & Mason’s ‘Sailboat Chocolate’, where cocoa is transported via sailboat. Consumers are willing to pay the premium for the 99% emission free chocolate due to its laborious journey if the end product is perceived to be high enough quality.

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