Hospitality's race to zero – Part 1

The future of the planet hinges on global cooperation to bring carbon emissions to zero.
With coffee’s vast global supply chain traversing producers, shipping, roasters, and cafés, businesses from across the industry must play their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a new three-part series, 5THWAVE speaks to key figures from across the coffee supply chain to understand what’s needed for hospitality to reach net zero. We're kicking things off at the beginning of the supply chain and looking at carbon reduction at origin

Coffee beans drying in the sun | Photo credit: freedomnaruk via Shutterstock

Environmental sustainability is fast becoming the primary concern of the coffee industry. For the leaders that gathered at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November 2021, the imperative is clear. In August 2021, the UN labelled an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on catastrophic climate change as ‘code red for humanity’.

Crucially, the report states with 90% certainty that human influence is the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s.

Coffee is on the front line of global heating’s damaging impact, with some models predicting rising temperatures will halve land suitable for its cultivation by 2050. Compounding the challenges facing the industry, global coffee demand is forecast to triple production by 2050, raising pressure on habitats and vital carbon sinks as more land is cleared for cultivation.

Grown in the tropics and shipped to every corner of the globe, coffee accumulates a carbon cost wherever it is transported, roasted, ground, brewed or served. The coffee industry must play its part in reducing carbon emissions if global efforts to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees are to succeed. To do so, we must first understand where and how carbon is emitted across this vast supply chain.

Cutting carbon at origin

Farming is just the beginning of coffee’s carbon journey, with transport, brewing and the addition of milk all contributing to its footprint. Nevertheless, improved farming practices can have a significant positive impact at this first vital step of the supply chain.

“One of the biggest issues facing sustainability at origin is getting enough resources in the hands of producers”

– Katie Carguilo, Western Coffee Manager, Counter Culture Coffee

Research led by Mark Maslin FRGS, Professor of Earth System Science at University College London (UCL) found growing a single kilogram of green Arabica from the world’s largest producers, Brazil and Vietnam, and exporting it to the UK produces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equivalent to 15.33kg of carbon dioxide.

However, by using fewer synthetic nitrogen-based fertilisers – potent GHG emitters – improving energy efficiency during milling and shipping via sea instead of air, that figure can fall to 3.51 kg of CO₂ – a 77% reduction.

“In the next 30 years we’re going to have to get to net zero carbon emissions. Every part of our life must cease emitting carbon in some shape or form. Coffee is an illustration that even small things we take for granted have a carbon cost and the way they are produced and consumed will change” says Maslin.

Counter Culture Coffee is one company continually making sustainability improvements across the 1,200 tons of coffee it sources from 18 countries every year. By measuring and reducing its impact across metrics including energy usage, transportation, and staff travel, the company has reduced greenhouse gas emissions per 1,000 pounds (454kg) of coffee sold by 57%.

Carbon credits could encourage more farmers to introduce environmental protections and further reduce the carbon footprint of coffee cultivation | Photo credit: Cottonbro

In addition to paying above-market prices, Counter Culture also provides seed funding to promote sustainable farming practices, with recent projects including building beehives in Peru, installing organic fertiliser plants in Colombia, and setting up waste water treatment systems in Ethiopia.

“One of the biggest issues facing sustainability at origin is getting enough resources in the hands of producers,” says Katie Carguilo, Western Coffee Manager at Counter Culture Coffee.

Counter Culture then works with sustainable coffee specialist Enveritas to measure and verify sustainability progress across its own operations and network of coffee farms before feeding back the data to both producers and suppliers.

By the end of 2021, Counter Culture aims to verify the supply chains behind two million pounds of its coffee. Carguilo urges that verification is not used to ‘catch out’ or blacklist farmers. Instead, it provides a reliable framework to benchmark progress for those trading in sustainably grown coffee, which can often fetch higher prices in the process.

“There’s a lot of cheap coffee out there masquerading as sustainable. So-called specialty coffee companies need to be traceable and transparent so consumers can have confidence in their products,” Carguilo says.

The $6.7bn carbon credits industry could provide another avenue for both coffee companies and producers to reduce supply chain emissions and protect natural habitats.

Coffee is an illustration that even small things we take for granted have a carbon cost

– Mark Maslin FRGS, Professor of Earth System Science, University College London

Volcafe Way is a sustainability and profitability initiative set up by Volcafe, one of the world’s top three coffee traders by volume. The initiative’s founder, Carlos Ortiz, believes there is vast untapped potential to pay coffee farmers to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices.

“Coffee farmers can decide whether to pollute a water source or cut down trees on their land. But what if, as part of their overall coffee income, someone was paying them to keep the water clean and protect the trees? These are the environmental services that can be linked to coffee production and price,” says Ortiz.

Shade grown coffee is much lauded as providing vital habitats for wild species and helping limit damage caused by land clearance. Trees also sequester huge amounts of carbon and could prove hugely effective in the fight against global heating. With IPCC data showing human land clearance accounts for 22% of global carbon emissions, the potential for carbon credits to protect pristine habitats is compelling.

Clearly, getting more resources for environmental protections into the hands of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers could have a significant positive impact on coffee’s overall carbon footprint.

In part-two we'll shift the focus to carbon reduction strategies in coffee roasteries. For more on the ecological impact of coffee farming, tune in to our podcast episode: Environmental sustainability at origin

This article was first published in Issue 8 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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