Coffee is one of the largest global industries generating a trade value of US$30.9 billion from 9.5 billion tonnes of coffee produced annually. Coffee production and demand are only expected to increase, putting pressure on farms, forests, and native ecosystems. If we wish to keep coffee viable, we have to consider how we use our limited resources.
The carbon footprint of coffee needs to be addressed if we want a true picture of what it takes to make coffee sustainable. Every step of the complex coffee value chain contributes to carbon emissions and the resulting carbon footprint can be staggering. Let’s unravel the true cost of your morning coffee and find out what can be done to make coffee more sustainable.
What is Carbon Footprint?
Everything you do has a carbon footprint: from driving your car to work, to grocery shopping, and yes, even the coffee you drink. A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions from a service, product, activity, organisation, or individual. It’s most commonly defined by carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), but greenhouse gases also include other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
Greenhouse gases can be produced by burning fossil fuels, clearing land for agriculture, transportation of goods, and manufacturing processes. The average annual carbon footprint per person globally is around 5 tonnes, but this varies by region when you get down to the details. For example, the annual carbon footprint in the United States goes up to 16 tonnes, which is much higher than the global average.
Controlling greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of different industries and activities is vital for halting the progress of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that 2 billion hectares of land on Earth have been damaged through agriculture, which has caused about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions around the world. A report from the panel recommends that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and we need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 if we hope to keep global temperatures within an acceptable range. Agriculture, and by extension the cultivation of coffee, will be essential in managing the land and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon Footprint Across the Coffee Supply Chain
Every stage of the coffee supply chain produces greenhouse gases: from cultivation to processing to shipping, roasting, packaging, and serving. At the end of the chain, one cup of brewed coffee has a carbon footprint of 0.2g of CO2e.
To start with, about 68% of the carbon footprint of coffee comes from coffee farms. Coffee is a highly water-intensive crop and requires massive amounts of irrigation to grow successfully. Water consumption doesn’t end here however, since you need a lot of water during processing. Moreover, this water can’t be reused after processing (due to the high caffeine content) unless filtered. At the production level, we also have to account for the use of pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers, and fuel which contributes to the carbon footprint of coffee.
Being a tropical plant, coffee is mostly grown in the global south. Ecosystems in this region are particularly vulnerable and there are additional socio-political factors that contribute to land misuse. In Brazil, for example, huge areas of the rainforest are torn down to make space for agriculture.
At the processing stage, harvesting, milling, sorting, and packing cause significant emissions through the consumption of fuel, water, energy, and land.
After production and processing on the farm, coffee needs to be transported for export around the world. The most common mode of transportation are cargo ships. Cargo ships produce large amounts of particulate matter, nitrous oxide, sulphur oxides, and soot. All these pollutants are highly toxic to both the environment and human health. In fact, soot is the largest contributing factor to climate change after CO2. Packaging and transportation account for 4% of the carbon footprint of coffee.
Next, we come to the roasting stage, where again we have huge amounts of exhaust fumes being released into the atmosphere. Roasting involves the combustion of fossil fuels which produces greenhouse gases. On average, one pound of roasted coffee produces 11 pounds of carbon.
The greatest contribution to the carbon footprint comes from the consumption of coffee at the end of the supply chain. Coffee that is sold needs to be packaged, ground, brewed, and disposed of. Heating, cooling, using brewing machines, lighting, filters, and disposable products all contribute to the carbon footprint. This stage accounts for a third of the total carbon footprint of coffee. An automatic coffee machine has a carbon footprint of 60.27g per cup whereas manual brewing like a drip filter or French Press generates 10g of CO2e per cup. Clearly, manual brewing is much kinder on the environment
Overall, growing and transporting 1kg of specialty Arabica coffee from its origin to Europe causes emissions equivalent to 15kgs of carbon dioxide. However, this amount is for unroasted green coffee and the total emissions can vary. The emissions can be reduced by switching to cleaner agriculture with less fertiliser, well-managed irrigation, and more efficient energy consumption. We can even go one step further by replacing chemicals with organic fertiliser, switching to renewable energy, and reusing water.
To put things in perspective, an average double espresso contains about 18g of green coffee, which means 1kg can produce 112 espressos. The carbon footprint of one shot of espresso is approximately 0.28kg but it can be reduced to 0.06kg by switching to sustainable agriculture.
As most of the carbon footprint of coffee is at its origin, sustainable coffee cultivation can reduce carbon emissions by nearly 80%. From using fewer agrochemicals to more efficient transportation and even innovative roasting methods can significantly cut the carbon footprint of coffee.
For roasters, the focus is on how they roast, package, and transport their coffee. Sustainability measures at this level include switching to green roasters that can save up to 157 tons of carbon emissions. Packaging accounts for a small portion of the total emissions of your cup but it’s still something worth looking into. Sustainable packaging can be biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable bags.
All these measures help create circularity in the coffee supply chain where we reduce waste and maximise the use of our limited resources.
Ultimately, one of the best ways to make coffee more sustainable is by exercising your power as a consumer. If you understand the value behind each cup you drink, you can start investing in buying good coffee from ethical, sustainable brands. Conscious consumption is key to shifting the priorities of the supply chain from pure output to a more holistic approach. Coffee has far-reaching socioeconomic effects and should be treated with the importance it deserves.
Carbon Footprint of Tea vs Coffee
A cup of coffee will generally have a larger carbon footprint than a cup of tea, but there’s a lot more nuance to the situation. It’s not necessarily about tea vs coffee but rather about how you prepare the drinks. The biggest drivers of the difference in the carbon footprint of tea vs coffee are milk and water.
Adding cow milk to either your coffee or tea will increase the emissions since raising cows produces methane which is a greenhouse gas. Switching to non-dairy milk is a better option but not all vegan milk is created equal. Almond milk, for example, is very popular but also has a huge carbon footprint because almonds are highly water-intensive to grow.
Next, how you heat up your water matters. Always heat up only as much as you need and try to use a traditional stove-top kettle instead of an electric one. Stove-top kettles are particularly good for the winter since the escaped heat will heat up the surroundings too.
On a fundamental level, tea requires less water to grow than coffee but tea cultivation has similar problems with land clearance and chemical fertilisers. Additionally, tea bags can contain microplastics. Switching to loose-leaf tea can help here.
Conventional coffee production consumes massive amounts of energy, water, and land, which has a significant impact in the tropical regions in which it’s grown. Native biodiversity can be threatened by the long and complex process of manufacturing coffee and getting it from farm to market.
While coffee is almost entirely grown in developing countries in the global south, a majority of consumption happens in developed nations, primarily the European Union and North America. The EU and the United States account for two-thirds of all coffee imports. The burden of reducing the carbon footprint of coffee can’t rest on farmers alone: as consumers, we need to advocate for better solutions and better support to help farmers stay sustainable both economically and environmentally.