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Can coffee be carbon neutral?

carbon neutral coffee

The coffee industry is looking at its carbon footprint, with many players pledging to reach net zero emissions. But what does it really take for a coffee roaster to become carbon neutral? 

Paris is famous for many things, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral, a vibrant gourmet food and fine dining culture, and an agreement made in 2016 between 196 countries to reduce or mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions.

Coffee is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, with The Climate Institute in Australia’s projection that land suitable for its production will be halved by 2050 a well-known and shared statistic in the industry.

These recognitions of the impact of climate change have pushed coffee roasters and businesses of all shapes and sizes to look at their own emissions, or carbon footprint, and how they can reduce them. Some have even pledged to completely abolish or compensate these emissions.

Global coffee chain Starbucks has announced its intentions to become “resource positive” by 2030. Italian roaster illycaffé intends to be carbon neutral by its centennial in 2033. Lavazza joined the CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge to curtail greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Another such company that has set a sooner target is Nespresso. In September, the Swiss-based coffee capsule pioneer announced that every cup of Nespresso coffee will be carbon neutral by 2022. Julie Reneau, Sustainability Strategy Manager at Nespresso tells Global Coffee Report the announcement builds on decades of work from the company to improve its sustainability performance.

“Our promise to consumers is to deliver a high-quality coffee revealing aroma profiles from the terroir where these coffees are grown. The only way to fulfill this promise, is to build a resilient supply chain, overcoming all the challenges ahead of us,” Reneau says.

“Climate change is already affecting farming communities and is now broadly considered as the biggest challenge facing humanity. We are entering a decisive decade where everyone needs to act in a more accelerated way. Nespresso has fortunately started the transition over the past decade and is ready for acceleration.”

Since 2017, Nespresso has been carbon neutral within its own business operations, a long-standing carbon reduction effort across its value chain. Nespresso has then inset the remaining emissions of its operational scope, compensating carbon with actions within the value chain. This involved Nespresso planting native trees in the coffee regions where it sources its coffee. Five million native trees have been planted since 2014 and the company advocates for this “virtuous compensation” approach through the International Platform for Insetting.

“For the last seven years, we’ve leveraged the capabilities of farmers to integrate native trees which can sequester carbon on the farmland with their coffee. These ‘carbon sinks’ absorb carbon from the atmosphere into the biomass and into the soil,” Reneau says.

“These regenerative agricultural models, like agroforestry, prove to be the best way to adapt smallholders to climate change as they deliver many other benefits such as temperature regulation, soil, and water conservation.”

With the global carbon neutrality announcement, the company aims at scaling its scope of actions and cover the remaining emissions generated by the activities from farm to end of life.

 “You have to look at your product lifecycle and the impact at each of its stages – green coffee supply, aluminium sourcing, cardboard or paper production, manufacturing machines, roasting coffee, distribution, usage, and its end of life when the consumer recycles the machine or capsule,” Reneau says.

“Many people would assume for a company like Nespresso, most of these emissions would come from the packaging, transport, and processing, but according to life cycle assessments roughly a third is from the home consumption phase and another 30 per cent is due to green coffee supply.”

Nespresso has taken many steps to mitigate these carbon emissions and environmental impact. This starts with Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program, through which 95 per cent of its volume is sourced. Producers who are part of the sourcing program must employ crucial sustainable coffee farming and zero deforestation practices.

The business has also procured renewable electricity for its three factories and almost a third of its boutique network, as of 2019. The eco-design of its capsules, using 80 per cent recycled aluminium, and the energy efficiency of the machines have also contributed to a 23 per cent carbon footprint reduction per cup versus 2009.

Nespresso intends to have its carbon neutrality certified by a third-party organisation.

“An external endorsement of our carbon neutrality will reassure the consumers that by drinking a Nespresso coffee, there is no harm to the climate” Reneau says.

“Our climate journey is still very much about addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. What has changed is the speed and scale of our efforts particularly the one related to the transition towards a regenerative coffee agriculture.”

Sinking carbon
Carbon neutral certification enables a business to have their footprint and environmental impact measured and verified by an impartial third party. 

As of September 2020, the private label focused Coind Group is Italy’s first coffee business to receive carbon neutral certification from the Dutch Climate Neutral Group. Valentina Pareschi, Communication Manager at Coind, says achieving the certification was a simple process.

“You measure your emissions, then you compensate for them with an amount of money paid to the Climate Neutral Group, which uses them for environmental activities. For example, we chose a reforestation project in Brazil, where you plant as many trees as necessary to compensate for your carbon emissions,” Pareschi says.

“From one side, you compensate straight away for the carbon emissions of your production. From the other, as a company, you’re pushed to find solutions to reduce your emissions because you’re paying a clear price for them.”

Measuring its emissions has made it possible for Coind to identify where in its operations it can reduce its carbon footprint. An immediate area for improvement the group identified, is logistics. 

“We realised we can improve the way we transport coffee and optimise shipments. In this way, you use less tracks to transport your goods and this improve the carbon emissions of your transport overall,” Pareschi says.

“Improving our carbon emissions will be a focus for 2021 but having the certification already in effect means we can make a positive impact in the meantime.”

While Coind ultimately implemented carbon neutral certification to improve its impact on the environment, Pareschi says strong demand from the market for environmentally sustainable solutions encouraged the roaster to take the step.

“For instance, we’ve been working with Coop, one of the biggest retailers in Italy, since our very beginning. Coop has always been conscious of the environment and looks for eco-friendly solutions. Because we’ve worked with them for a long time, it’s always encourages us to look for these kinds of solutions too,” she says.

“As a private label company, certification is a big competitive advantage because we can offer this solution to a client for their own coffee brand. Even though we only rolled out the certification in September, a lot of international companies are already contacting us asking about carbon neutral coffee.”

Numerous carbon neutral certifications bodies, like Climate Active, Bonsucro, and the Carbon Reduction Institute, use offset programs similar to Climate Neutral Group to compensate for a business’s carbon emissions. While some focus on reforestation efforts like Coind has embraced, other options include investing money in renewable energy projects. 

Pareschi says the largest hurdle for coffee businesses looking to go carbon neutral is having the scale to manage it.

“If you are a smaller roaster, it’s not so easy to start with such a certification. Your company needs to have a structure behind it to manage this kind of certification,” she says. Regardless, Pareschi adds that certification or not, it’s imperative the industry takes action against climate change.

“Reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment will be a challenge not only for coffee roasters, but all companies and people in the next few years.”

Another way
While some businesses see carbon offset programs as a path to quickly balancing out their carbon emissions, the Löfbergs Group in Sweden has taken a different approach. 

“We looked into [carbon neutral certifications and offsets] many years ago, and offer this to some of our business partners, but made the decision not to apply it across the whole business,” says Eva Eriksson, Head of Sustainability at Löfbergs.

“It’s a very good initiative, but we feel you can’t compensate for ‘black’ fossil-fuelled carbon emissions with ‘green’ energy. When we compensate, it will be in other areas, like solar panels or wind power, that provide small coffee farmers with cleaner energy.”

When Löfbergs does purchase carbon credits, it is through the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism.

Löfbergs began examining its environmental footprint in the 1990s, starting with energy efficiency measures at its Swedish roastery. The roaster’s production volumes have doubled since then, while electricity usage has remained the same. Until recently, 30 per cent of the gas it used for roasting at its Karlstad factory was biopropane. This will be scaled up to 100 per cent in 2021.

In 2011, Löfbergs joined the Haga Initiative, a business network or European companies committed to reducing their carbon emissions. Using its 2005 performance as a baseline, Löfbergs goal was to reduce its own emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. It reached this in 2018, and exceeded it in 2019, with emissions cut by 50 per cent. By 2030, the roaster strives to use 100 per cent renewable resources and reduce its emissions to net zero.

“Under our new target, we will measure our impact from transport to packing material to coffee cultivation. Almost 90 per cent of emissions in the value chain come from the cultivation of coffee, so that is a big focus for us,” Eriksson says.

“If you don’t take care of the processed water from washed coffee – which could create emissions of ethane and nitrous dioxide, two very powerful greenhouse gases – you can have a very high climate impact. Fertilisers are another big contributor of emissions at the farm level. Through development projects we are also helping farmers compost that wastewater and use its energy for good.”

Eriksson says natural processed coffees lack as obvious of a footprint, but are often grown monoculturally and lack biodiversity, impacting their sustainability in the long run. 

Löfbergs works with certification programs like Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and Organic to ensure its coffee is produced accountably and sustainably. As a member of the International Coffee Partners, Löfbergs helped launch the Coffee & Climate toolbox, designed to provide farmers with the tools and information to fight climate change. Like with Nespresso’s activities, agroforestry will play a key role in helping farmers adapt while improving biodiversity.

“Climate change already affects coffee farmers very much, in very different ways in different parts of the world, so most of the tools are about helping coffee farmers with adaption measures,” Eriksson says.

“Cultivating coffee with other crops is better for farmers and the climate in the long run. Shade trees provide a more robust ecosystem for cultivation that can even act as a buffer and protection from diseases and pests.”

Regardless of how a coffee business approaches mitigating its carbon footprint, Eriksson says now is the time to act.

“It’s very important for the planet that we reduce our emissions, and this is becoming relevant to more and more people,” she says. “That is also something we address in our circular transformation with the clear-cut purpose of eliminating all waste related to coffee.

“It’s not easy, but we need to take into consideration things like climate change and biodiversity. Hopefully, we [the coffee industry and others] can be better.”

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