What’s in a cup of coffee?

There are a number of small things we can do to reduce the carbon footprint of our espresso or capuccino.

There are a number of small things we can do to reduce the carbon footprint of our espresso or capuccino.

Whatever the weather, a steaming cup of coffee puts the spark back in our day. For a guilt-free brew, we have all heard of fair trade coffee – which helps secure the rights of coffee workers. But what is the coffee industry doing to combat global warming and how might our daily shot of caffeine be affected by future changes in world climate?

Increased fertiliser use is responsible for a dramatic rise in nitrous oxide, a major greenhouse gas contributing to global climate change
- Anne Zammit

The International Trade Centre recently published a paper on the effects of climate change on the coffee industry (and vice-versa). Both coffee quality and yield are expected to be impacted by predicted changes in climate.

Smallholder producers of coffee are already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of abnormal rain patterns and an increased frequency of severe weather, but lack the resources to overcome them.

In one scenario, by the year 2050, Kenya is expected to have less seasonality in its climate. The mean low and high temperature is predicted to increase by over two degrees Celsius. More rainfall is predicted although its distribution may not be favourable for coffee growing.

These changes will shift optimal coffee producing zones 1,000 metres higher than they are today. Changes in rainfall may require coffee to be grown under irrigation in future. Drying of the coffee bean skins may also be affected.

Current suitability of the region for coffee production is as high as 70 per cent but by 2050, Kenya’s suitability for growing coffee beans is predicted to drop to around 45 per cent or lower.

Researchers are unable to make absolutely precise forecasts about how producer regions and global output will be affected but the general forecast is that climate change will significantly disrupt Arabica and Robusta coffee production in all regions.

Superior Arabica coffee beans grown at higher altitudes are delicate, require sunny but cool subtropical climates, lots of moisture, and rich soil. Robusta coffee, grown at lower levels, is generally thought to be the ‘cheaper’ coffee although a quality Robusta is often the secret behind a creamier Italian espresso.

Rising temperatures are expected to render some producing areas unsuitable for coffee cultivation. This would concentrate coffee production in areas where it is still possible but make the output risk more volatile in case of crop failure for other reasons such as pests and plant disease.

Coffee grew naturally under the leafy canopy of native rainforest trees until monoculture systems were introduced in the 1970s. This led to forest clearing exposing the trees to more sun, and higher yields followed planting of dense rows of coffee bushes doused with agrochemicals.

Forested coffee farms are slowly coming back as certification from the Rainforest Alliance and other bodies helps farmers manage their plantations more sustainably.

But many of the mitigation initiatives are small-scale and need to be adopted by the coffee industry as a whole.

Different coffee cultivation systems, such as forest coffee, smallholder plots and commercial plantations, have different levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The advice in the ITC report is that coffee farms have the potential to ‘sequester’ or trap carbon from the atmosphere. Tree cover can be increased through planting of more shade trees or extending total forest cover on farms. Farmers could even be compensated for these initiatives if they generate marketable carbon credits.

Intercropping, or planting around coffee bushes with plants which absorb greenhouse gases, planting of more shade trees and rehabilitation of degraded lands and hillsides can all count toward carbon credits.

Certain roasters in consumer countries have launched initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee as part of their marketing strategies. Some are even offering zero carbon footprint coffee largely achieved by purchasing carbon offsets.

This means that the greenhouse gases emitted during coffee production are offset by investing in carbon emission reduction or sequestration activities elsewhere. It may also be the case that this is done outside the coffee production chain, in other areas of enterprise.

The report also warns that the coffee industry must increasingly contribute to control the effect of greenhouse gas emissions and urgently prepare for further adverse changes in the climate.

Producer organisations must be strengthened before smallholder farmers can have better access to the potential benefits offered by the carbon markets.

In Kenya, smallholder coffee growers have used the Cool Farm Tool greenhouse gas calculator for farmers to help them measure the carbon footprint.

Coffee plantations have been urged to reduce their use of synthetic fertiliser – a big source of nitrous oxide – by maintaining good soil structure.

In the journal Nature Geoscience it was reported earlier this year that nitrous oxide traps heat at a different wavelength than carbon dioxide, closing a ‘window’ that allows the Earth to cool off independently of CO2 levels.

Chemists found a ‘fingerprint’ in isotope data, proving that increased fertiliser use over the past 50 years is responsible for a dramatic rise in this major greenhouse gas contributing to global climate change. Nitrous oxide has 300 times the effect of carbon dioxide.

There are various small things we can choose to do as individuals toward reducing the carbon footprint of our espresso or capuccino.

Capsule coffees have a very high carbon footprint due to the emissions involved in the production of the metal capsules. The type and efficiency of the coffee brewing machine also affects the product carbon footprint (PCF). Serving it in a paper cup can easily triple the carbon footprint of your coffee. (select English version)


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