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Coffee’s hidden carbon footprint

From the February 2018 issue.

A big chunk of carbon emissions come from just one part of the supply chain, running from farms to customer.

Richard Young

The coffee industry is keenly aware of the impact of climate change on its farmers. Less well known is the size of its own carbon footprint and how it breaks down across the whole cycle, from growing coffee beans to milling, transporting, roasting and, finally, consuming them.

A well-respected 2013 study by the Incae business school in Costa Rica found 21 per cent of total emissions from the country’s coffee industry came from farming, and the vast majority of that figure from the use of fertilisers. Even smaller was the figure from milling the coffee beans (13 per cent), their transportation by ship to Europe (5.5 per cent, a figure that would have been significantly higher if the coffee had been flown) and, surprisingly, given the energy involved, the roasting (4 per cent). Then there was grinding and purchasing (5.5 per cent), packaging (2.5 per cent), and eventual disposal (3 per cent).

The disproportionate figure was from the point of consumption, in this case a customer buying and making their cup of coffee. This end point accounted for a surprisingly high 43 per cent of total emissions in the whole cycle from a farm in Costa Rica to a European consumer (the proportion would have been even higher in a café scenario).

Measuring carbon emissions always carries certain caveats. It is something of an art as well as science, and a complex process that can never be exact but at least gives a strong indication of where energy is being consumed.

For instance, it should be noted the Incae study used 2008 German research rather than primary research for its consumption figure. Does it still hold up?

Ben Salinas, an engineer at US firm Luminaire Coffee who has written life cycle assessments of carbon footprints in the coffee industry, looked at the 2008 study for Global Coffee Report. He says its model of consumption (purchasing the coffee, brewing and disposing of it) is quite thorough, but the study uses a very simple brewing model which does not account for heat dissipation or wastage of coffee or water.

Because these can become significant factors, he expects the emissions from consumption in a cafe to be even higher than what was reported in the study. He adds: “The study specifically looks at filter coffee and not espresso, but we can still take it to indicate that the coffee consumption is a very big part of the impact (and that a lot of that is energy used for brewing).”

The German study is now 10 years old and progress has been made in the intervening years. So have espresso machines become more efficient?

Richard Young has some insights. He is Director of Frontier Energy, a US consulting firm which operates the Food Service Technology Centre in partnership with PG&E, whose primary purpose is to create and compare standardised test methods for food service appliances.

Young, who started studying energy consumption of devices in the coffee industry six years ago, says: “With espresso machines we have seen some innovation, although some of the manufacturers we talk to say ‘energy efficiency does not matter, it’s all about speed and performance’.

But other manufacturers see the need for more efficient machines and actually have spent some money in that area.”

The aim of the studies, says Young, was to get enough machines tested so that an energy star category for coffee and espresso makers could be developed. This never happened as the proposed scheme did not receive enough support from manufacturers, he says.

Young is persistent, however. He currently has the backing of the California Energy Commission for a study of the energy consumption of a range of food-service appliances, and is looking for volunteers from the coffee industry.

Nevertheless, some manufacturers do put in the work, even if it’s impossible to compare models across the industry.

Italy’s La Marzocco, for instance, supplied GCR with a list of energy-saving innovations it has made to its models in recent years: improved insulation across the range, stand-by mode that the company plans to extend to all models, more accurate temperature control settings, and an automatic on/off menu through which a café owner can program a machine to turn itself off during closed hours.

The coffee maker or espresso machine is hardly the only piece of equipment burning brightly in a café. A list might also include refrigerators, food holding wells, steam wells, pastry cabinet, hot water systems, conveyor toasters, hot food holding cabinets, and soup warmers, as well as lighting, heating and air conditioning: a frighteningly long list of appliances sucking energy throughout a working day.

Unsurprisingly, coffee shops are generally estimated to use significantly more energy than other retail outlets.

Richard Young predicts improvements for espresso machines will come through what he describes as “a gentle evolution”, achieved by tighter temperature controls and better insulation. Maybe that will happen for other devices too. “The thing that creates carbon is heat waste. The better you control the heat, less leaks out, and the more efficient you are,” says Young.

And then there are more radical solutions, like the Rok, a manual, non-electric espresso maker that requires the operator to press down two arms to force hot water through ground coffee. The spidery looking device, originally called the Presso, has been around since 2004. Water still has to be boiled with a kettle before being poured into the Rok, but that takes a significantly smaller amount of energy than a traditional espresso machine. Afterwards it’s down to human muscle to force the water through the coffee, replacing the electric pump on an espresso machine.

Rok inventor Patrick Hunt, who is based in the UK, says creating a machine with a low carbon footprint was one of his motivations in its design.

“I was also mindful of creating something with longevity which is a factor not always audited in environmental evaluations.”

Primarily designed for domestic kitchens, the Rok has been used in commercial cafes in locations in the developing world, those countries with nonexistent, or unreliable, electricity supply. The boiling water can come from an open fire or gas stove.

But using the Rok in cafes with a reliable grid might be a stretch, Hunt admits: “In a commercial setting the time limit is very tight so I think that asking a barista to manually pull a coffee might make it a bit slow.” However, he adds, optimistically, “the theatre of it would be fantastic”.

It might appear more prosaic than innovation but water use (and misuse) is a major factor too.

“For pour over and filter coffee, the name of the game is limiting how much hot water you pour down the drain. Water takes a lot of energy to heat up, and when you fill a kettle with one litre of water and then use 300 millilitres of it and pour the other 700 millilitre down the drain, you are tripling the amount of energy that you put into that cup of coffee,” says Ben Salinas.

Many hot water systems now are more efficient because of better insulation on their boilers, so big improvements have to come from reducing how much hot water is wasted (both the water and the energy that went into heating that water), he points out.

Again, apparently a small point but repeated across an industry having an enormous impact, is how baristas flush water through an espresso machine before and after use. A 60-millilitre espresso, but with 60 millilitre of flushing, doubles the amount of power used to create that drink, argues Salinas.

“So a simple way to improve energy efficiency in the cafe is to reduce how much water you rinse your group head with. I see some cafes where they flush for five to ten seconds, which can probably have a huge impact on their energy usage,” he adds.

If nothing else, café owners are being offered cost savings from such tips, although some are motivated by more than that. Meredith Taylor, sustainability manager of Counter Culture Coffee, a US coffee roaster that has assessed its own carbon footprint and ran a climate change adaptation workshops for farmers last year, is an optimist: “I think more and more as an industry we are understanding just how disruptive the effects of climate change are on coffee farming. So people are saying ‘oh well, I should at least do my part to reduce my company’s emissions because what we are doing is creating a problem on our sourcing side’.”

However, it’s clear not everyone buys into the message. For instance, the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) released its Green Guides in 2012 and 2013 “for a specific audience who says they wanted tools to help reduce their energy consumption and to make their coffee shops more sustainable spaces”, explains Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA).

“So we created them and the community that asked for them says ‘no, we can’t make any of those changes’,” says Ionescu.

“They continue to exist as a reference set but they haven’t created a groundswell of change or any working groups who have said ‘let’s implement these in our shops and see what happens’.” The plan is still to update the Green Guides, maybe this year.

That is a setback that needs to be better understood. “There is not a reluctance to accept the message [about climate change] but more a perception among small retailers who are SCA members and already see their margins so small, their business a risky one, their resources limited, and perhaps with limited experience at running a business. It means they don’t have a lot of capacity to dedicate to this” is Ionescu’s analysis.

Certainly, one group who fully understands the climate change issue are those most at the receiving end. Counter Culture’s Taylor talks about her adaptation workshop: “One of the most interesting questions I got from farmers after the fact was them saying ‘well, you guys are the ones creating this problem and we are ones feeling the effects, so what are you doing to reduce your impact?’.”

She adds: “There is definitely an awareness among farmers that they are being impacted by something they did not create. It surprised me that there was that level of awareness that the first world is producing all these emissions while coffee producing countries are not, yet they are the ones feeling the effects the most.”

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