Where have you BEAN?
by
Jessica Wei
Jun 11
The Surprising Carbon Footprint of Coffee — and What We Can Do to Fix It



Whether it’s ritualistically poured over a glass coffee funnel, brewed industrial strength in a drip coffee pot or swiped from a barista counter, it’s hard to imagine anything more embedded in our morning routines than coffee.

Our lives are increasingly fueled by coffee: 62 percent of Americans drink an average of more than three cups every day. 

And is there any question why? Coffee is delicious, warm (or iced!) comfort in a cup, a jolt of energy when we need it most. But it’s also impacting — and being impacted by — our global food carbon footprint.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash
A two-cup-a-day habit would be contributing around 311 kg (685 pounds) to your carbon footprint.

Demand for coffee keeps growing, but climate change has affected farmers’ abilities to grow and harvest the quantities necessary to keep up.

Coffee production contributes to deforestation, land degradation, water pollution, transportation emissions and other harms to the environment.

And that doesn’t even cover the energy that goes into roasting and brewing the coffee, the packaging it’s shipped and served in, or the emissions from the splash of milk you might take it with.

In fact, according to one BBC story, over the course of a year, a two-cup-a-day habit would be contributing around 311 kg (685 pounds) to your carbon footprint.

That’s 1.7 percent of the average American footprint of 17 tCO2e. But how? Coffee is just a bean. It literally grows on trees. So where do all those emissions come from?

Where coffee’s carbon footprint comes from

As it turns out, the carbon footprint of coffee comes from a lot of different places. As with so many consumer goods in our interconnected world, the path from bean to cup is long and winding. 

In fact, every step of the process of the coffee supply chain, from the farming of the coffee trees to the single-use cup that it’s served in, comes with its own carbon footprint. Let’s break that down. 

Coffee, climate change and farming

Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash

 Agriculture in general is a source of greenhouse gases, and coffee is no exception. But coffee production can be a climate change solution, too.

Most conventional methods of growing coffee rely on fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate groundwater, change the chemical balance of soil and wreak havoc on the local environment. 

While the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-loaded fertilizers used on most coffee crops result in high yields, they also lead to long-term damage, including eroded soil fertility and higher rates of plant disease. Use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also creates emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

In one large coffee-growing community in Vietnam, only 10 to 20 percent of the coffee was sustainably produced.

Because of the one-two punch of the weakened ecosystem and more severe weather conditions brought on by climate change, some large-scale farming communities are beginning to explore regenerative farming practices.

This includes digging up their old plots and rehabilitating the soil, growing a diversity of crops to create more natural shade for coffee crops to thrive, and using organic fertilizers and pesticides. However, the proportion of conventional coffee growers embracing sustainable farming practices is still low.

For example, in a recent survey of one large coffee-growing community in Vietnam, only 10 to 20 percent of the coffee was sustainably produced.

From berry to bean

Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

Once the coffee cherries (which are the large, red fruit which surround the pit, or the bean) are picked, they’re immediately whisked off to coffee processing plants to be processed in one of two ways.

Either they’re laid in the sun with the fruit still attached, known as dry coffee processing, or they’re sorted, mechanically de-pitted with the beans preserved and then given a fermentation period to get the stubborn membrane off the bean via wet coffee processing. 

While dry coffee processing is the preferred way of treating these coffee berries in drier and sunnier regions like Ethiopia and some areas of Brazil, wet coffee processing ensures that a large batch of freshly picked beans won’t be spoiled by a sudden unexpected rainfall.

Wet-processed beans are also generally considered better tasting and higher quality. The drawback is that, as the name suggests, this process is hugely water intensive.

However, some coffee processing plants have embraced more sustainable ways of wet processing. Applying proper water disposal limits, recycling the water used to wash the beans, and chemically treating industrial wastewater to break down pollutants before they reach surrounding rivers go a long way to reducing the environmental footprint that comes with coffee processing. 

Once processed and dried, the green coffee beans are packed into large jute or vacuum-sealed plastic bags to prepare for the long journey from the far-away tropics to the commercial roastery to be roasted and packaged, and then off to your local supermarket or café.

Coffee is one of the most traded commodities in the world, and can only stay fresh for so long. So what’s the fastest way to get it to market before it has a chance to spoil? You pack it up and throw it on a plane, of course.

From ship to sip

While most coffee is exported by cargo ship, more and more is being flown to maintain the freshness of the beans. And that can really bump up the overall carbon footprint of coffee — think an increase of over 70 percent.

Cargo shipping, on the other hand, carries a much larger volume of product while using much less fuel.   

Photo by Tim Umphreys on Unsplash

It turns out that pound for pound, coffee’s carbon footprint (when it’s produced in the least sustainable ways) is almost as much as cheese. And that’s just getting the bag on a grocery store shelf.

If you love your coffee with dairy milk or take it to go in a disposable cup (those paper ones contain plastic and are generally not recyclable), or, the hits to the environment are nowhere over.

The way you take your coffee can account for more than half of its total carbon emissions.

In fact, it’s what you add to your coffee that has a giant impact. The way you take your coffee can account for more than half of its total carbon emissions.

The more dairy milk you add, the more of an impact it makes on the environment. After all, your dietary choices really affect your carbon footprint, so opting for a plant-based milk or drinking your coffee black can really make a difference.

How global warming affects coffee farmers

As these conventional practices release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerate the greenhouse effect, coffee production is also subject to the impacts of climate change.

Coffee crops require specific light, temperature and humidity conditions to thrive. Extreme weather, floods, droughts and rising temperatures could throw that delicate balance completely out of whack, leading to diseased crops or plants that just can’t grow. 

Photo by Martin Nabert on Shutterstock

The ecological toll is already underway. From 2012 to 2013, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala, three prominent coffee-growing regions, declared a state of emergency due to the spread of a fungus that causes coffee leaf rust and destroys coffee plantations.

The spread of this fungus is only expected to get worse as temperatures rise. 

Research suggests that by 2050, climate change could wipe out up to half of the existing usable land for coffee.

Research suggests that by 2050, climate change could wipe out up to half of the existing usable land for coffee. That means farmers will have to look for new pastures to sow their crop, namely areas with higher and higher elevation, where there’s less land available.

(Almost) carbon-free coffee

Let’s get the worst fears out of the way first: You do not have to quit coffee to save the planet.  Coffee keeps societies functioning and our nervous systems buzzing — the last thing we want is for people to give up the bean if it’s important to them. So you can breathe easy and keep on sippin’.

Besides, there are so many different ways to adjust your habit while making a dent in your coffee-related carbon emissions. 

How the industry bags a better brew 

Photo by Asael Pena on Unsplash
Megabrands like Starbucks, Nespresso and Lavazza are turning the tide on conventional coffee production.

The industry is changing. Megabrands like Starbucks, Nespresso and Lavazza are turning the tide on conventional coffee production.

Now that consumers are increasingly concerned with equitable worker standards, sustainable agriculture and traceability, these companies have developed their own in-house certification criteria. These programs support direct trade relationships, sustainable sourcing and greater transparency.       

There’s more innovation and investments in agroforestry initiatives than ever before to help mitigate the risk of climate change.

These include planting trees, restoring the region’s natural biodiversity to create natural shade and control pests (and relying less on pesticides), changing soil management practices to prioritize soil health and educating new farmers on sustainable crop management.

It’s still the same deliciously addictive bean water that ends up in your cup, but the difference for the environment is huge.

One study found that sustainable coffee production that relies on no air transport and eliminates harmful chemical fertilizers resulted in 77 percent fewer carbon emissions than conventional coffee production.

Cut your coffee carbon at home

Photo by Dima Berlin on Shutterstock
Oat milk, for instance, uses up a fraction of the land, water and emissions of cow milk, and it’s just as creamy.

On the consumer side, there are plenty of ways to lessen your carbon footprint and still indulge in your beloved bean juice. As we mentioned, one of the biggest changes you can make is to try swapping out the dairy in your cappuccino with an alternative milk.

Oat milk, for instance, uses up a fraction of the land, water and emissions that are used to produce cow milk, and it’s just as creamy.

If you start bringing a reusable mug to the coffee counter or ask for a ceramic cup to sit down with (gosh, remember “For here or to go?”), just imagine how much plastic from the lids and cup lining you’ll keep out of the landfill.  

When buying a bag of beans to make coffee at home, there are plenty of certification schemes to indicate whether the coffee has been sustainably produced, like USDA-certified Organic or Bird Friendly certification, which ensures that farms growing the coffee conserve and maintain habitats for migratory birds.

You can also check if the label states that the beans have been “shade grown”, which means that they’ve been grown in the shade under a natural canopy of trees. Sun-grown coffee is planted as a monoculture, which can drive deforestation and soil erosion.

There are sustainable methods that produce a high-quality beverage, like French presses and stovetop moka pots.

When it comes to sustainable brew methods, there are plenty of filter-free methods that produce a high-quality beverage, like French presses and stovetop moka pots.

You can also easily find post-consumer recycled filters or reusable filters for the brew system you already have. And if you have a coffee pod system like a Nespresso or a Keurig, don’t sweat it!

Even though it looks like more waste, these machines are actually less environmentally harmful than most other coffee brewing methods. Pod brewers flash-heat just enough water to make a cup and use less coffee, and the machines themselves don’t stay on all the time (unlike, for example, your average office drip brewer).

This results in less water, energy and coffee use per cup than most other coffeemakers. And if you recycle the pods properly, through a brand’s in-house recycling program or through a community drop-off, you can minimize your impact even further.

One simple way to reduce coffee’s carbon footprint

The truth is, it takes water, energy and raw material to harvest, ship, package and brew even your most basic cup.

As we’ve learned here, the simple joy of a cup of coffee is not so simple after all.

While we normally don’t think of our morning joe as something that creates waste, the truth is, it takes water, energy and raw material to harvest, ship, package and brew even your most basic cup.

With all these precious resources going into our morning fix, it’s worth remembering that coffee is a real treat and a privilege. Without proper care and attention, a daily coffee habit can create a ton of waste.

It can happen from boiling too much water, making a larger pot than you need and letting it get cold and undrinkable, or buying a prebottled latte or canned coffee drink and not properly recycling the packaging. But thankfully, it’s just as easy to avoid when we build climate-conscious practices into our routines and savor every last drop.

We’re still a long way from carbon-neutral coffee, but by changing up your order and looking for sustainable options, you can dramatically shrink the carbon footprint of your morning fix. So feel free to pour yourself a second cup.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Jessica Wei
Written By
Jessica Wei

Jessica Wei is a writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, and the Independent. She'll sneak an anchovy into any dish she's cooking.

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