What is the carbon footprint of your cup of coffee?
Climate changes are occurring globally at an increasing rate. The earth is now about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. The recent IPCC 2021 Climate Report found that if the world takes a carbon-intensive pathway, global warming could climb to 3.3-5.7 °C higher than pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. To put that in perspective, the world has not experienced global warming of more than 2.5°C for more than 3 million years, a period with a very different climate system.
And because the earth is a system where everything is connected, changes in one area can influence all others. The consequences of climate change now include intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, and storms and declining biodiversity.
As coffee roasters and stakeholders in the coffee supply chain, we are increasingly concerned about climate change and its impact on our coffee-growing communities.
For example, recent droughts and unprecedented frost destroyed large portions of the 2021 harvest of our farmers in Campo das Vertentes and Mantiqueira de Minas located in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil leading to a loss in yield and income. And because Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, we saw global coffee prices skyrocketing, hurting consumer’s pockets. Overall a no-win situation.
Or if we take a look at our Peruvian coffee farmers. Their rainy season decreased from 6 to 3 months duration. And seasons become drier and warmer to the effect that global warming has intensified the spread of coffee leaf rust into previously cooler climate areas and is destroying once flourishing coffee trees.
What we do to reduce carbon emissions
Limiting climate change demands substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from our human activities. And we at 23 Degrees recognise that we all have a role to play, a responsibility we take seriously. Over the past years, we’ve implemented many initiatives to lower our greenhouse gas emissions within our own operations (referred to scope 1 and 2) and across our supply chain (scope 3).
For us, it was essential to understand what our carbon emissions are and at what stage of the coffee supply chain the most significant emissions occur. This baseline enables us to redirect our initiatives to the areas of most impact. We, therefore, undertook an extensive Life Cycle Assessment1) to estimate the carbon footprint at each stage of our coffee supply chain from ‘cradle to grave’. And the results took us by surprise.
The study estimated that one cup of coffee brewed with an automatic coffee maker has a carbon footprint of 0.209kg of CO2e. This carbon footprint of 0.209kg CO2 includes all required energy and material for:
- Growing, harvesting and processing of coffee from the coffee seedling stage
- Dry milling and sorting of green coffee
- Packaging of green coffee in jute and grain pro bags on EURO pallets for export
- Road transport from coffee farm to port
- Oceanfreight from port of loading to port of discharge
- Road transport from port to warehouse and road transport from warehouse to our roastery
- Energy used in our roastery for roasting, grinding and packaging
- Packaging of roasted coffee in coffee bags and shipping cartons
- Distribution of roasted coffee to our customers
- Heating of brewing water for the preparation of 1 cup of batch brew coffee
- Waste management of coffee bags, shipping boxes, spent coffee ground, green coffee bags, coffee chaff and euro pallets
The carbon footprint of 1 cup of coffee may not seem a lot if you live alone or drink only a cup each day, but collectively, it all adds up. For example, if you drink 2 cups per day for a whole year, this adds up to 153kg CO2e.
Activities and emissions within our operational control
Surprisingly, only a tiny portion of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee lies within our direct operational control (scope 1 and 2 of carbon accounting). This includes transporting the green beans from the warehouse to our roastery, electricity and gas usage within our roastery, and our distribution activities. Nonetheless, we are determined to improve this part of the carbon footprint by changing to solar panels and using more energy-efficient equipment.
Activities and emissions within our sourcing control
The more significant portion of the carbon footprint is created in stages of the supply chain that are not under our operational control. However, by making better sourcing decisions, we can also directly impact greenhouse gas emissions in these stages.
For example, 44% of the carbon footprint is generated at the farm level throughout the growing, harvesting and processing activities. Much of that footprint is due to the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in conventional coffee cultivations.
Over the past years, we’ve purposefully extended our range of organic and wild-grown coffees, now representing 55% of all our coffees. These are coffees that were cultivated without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. So how is that impacting the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee? Good question. At the growing stage at the farm level, the emissions of organic cultivated coffees may reduce by up to 1/3. So moving to more organic coffees has the enormous potential to decrease the carbon footprint from the cradle to the grave.
We’ve also been working hard on our waste management strategy. To us, that means viewing waste as a resource that we aim to reuse, recycle or compost. 99% of the end of lifecycle waste is either reusable, recyclable or compostable.
Activities and emissions within your control
The most surprising finding was that 38% of the CO2e emissions of a cup of coffee occur at the consumption stage by using energy for heating water for your brew.
When we modeled the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee, we had to make some assumptions. We assumed brewing a cup of batch brew using an automated coffee maker, using 250ml of water and 17g of roasted coffee. Even within this brewing scenario, the outcome can vary based on the specific energy consumption of your coffee maker, your location and energy provider, the grind size and flow rate and whether you use the heat plate after brewing.
Based on your brewing method, the carbon footprint of your cup of coffee might be smaller or larger. Here are three popular brewing methods and their CO2e emissions:
- Batch brew: 17g of coffee, 250ml water, an automated coffee maker with 1450 watts, brewing time of 3 minutes
- Plunger coffee: 17g coffee, a water kettle with 1700 watts, time to boil 1.5 minutes
- Home espresso machine: 21g coffee, brewing 2 espressos, espresso machine with 1850 watts, 5 minutes warm-up time and 30 seconds brewing time.
What you can do to decrease the carbon footprint of your cup of coffee
There are some easy changes in your daily coffee-making habit that can contribute to lowering the carbon footprint of your daily cup of coffee. Here they are:
- Don’t brew more coffee than you are going to drink. This not only avoids wasting coffee (and helps your pocket), it also saves energy when brewing water.
- Mix it up and grab some organic coffee beans.
- Avoid the use of disposable cups.
- Compost your coffee grounds or dispose of them in your green waste bin (subject to your local council regulations).
- Instead of leaving the warming plate of your coffee maker on, switch the coffee maker off and fill your coffee in a thermos to keep it warm.
- Place the coffee bags that are recyclable in the RedCycle bin for soft plastics.
You, as a consumer, can play a vital role in reducing the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee and in making coffee more sustainable.
Understanding climate change
Why are we experiencing global warming?
When the sun’s energy reaches the earth’s atmosphere, some of it is reflected back to space and the rest passes through the atmosphere to the earth’s surface, where it is absorbed by the land, oceans, and atmosphere, and heats the planet. The heat is then radiated back up and most of it gets absorbed by atmospheric gases, known as greenhouse gases, and redirected back toward the earth, causing further warming.
This process is called the greenhouse effect and is actually a good thing. It warms the planet and keeps life on earth. Without it the world would be a frozen, uninhabitable place.
The problem we now face is that human activities – mainly burning fossil fuels, agriculture, land clearing and us creating more waste which lends up in landfill –increase the emission and therefore the concentration of greenhouse gases.
Think of greenhouse gases as a blanket wrapped around the earth which trapping the sun’s heat. By increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, we make this blanket denser, more snuggly, causing the earth’s temperature to rise higher and higher.
What are the primary greenhouse gases?
The primary greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet include:
- Carbon Dioxide (CO2). While fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2, CO2 can also be emitted from deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, and degradation of soils. On the flipside, land can also remove CO2 from the atmosphere through reforestation and improvement of soils.
- Methane (CH4): Emitted through agricultural activities, waste management, energy use, and biomass burning all contribute to CH4
- Nitrous oxide (N2O): Emitted through agricultural activities, such as fertiliser use, are the primary source of N2O emissions. Fossil fuel combustion also generates N2
- Fluorinated gases: occur mainly in industrial processes and refrigeration.
How are greenhouse gas emissions measured?
Various greenhouse gases can have different effects on the earth’s warming. How much a specific gas impacts global warming depends on each gas’s ability to absorb energy and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
With the help of the Global Warming Potential (GWP) the global warming impact of each gas can be converted into one standard, comparable unit. GWP measures the total energy that a specific gas absorbs over a given period of time (usually 100 years) relative to the emissions of 1 tonne of CO2. So all the other greenhouse gases are measured against CO2. All gases converted via GWP are expressed in CO2e. The e stands for equivalent.
Having a standard unit of measurement for all gases allows comparisons between emissions from different activities. This is in particular helpful when analysing and redirecting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
By sharing this analysis and background information, we wanted to be transparent about our coffee supply chain, the carbon footprint, and the actions we take. We also wanted to share ideas and invite you to collectively take a stride towards a more climate-friendly cup of coffee.
1)For the carbon footprint modelling we used LCA SoftwarePro (Version 18.104.22.168.), the IPCC GWP 100a method, and Ecoinvent and AUSLCI databases.