What are the challenges of becoming a carbon negative coffee business?

Deniz Karaman
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January 13, 2022
carbon negative coffee

As climate change continues at an ever more frightening pace, consumers are calling on businesses to do more to cut carbon emissions.

And although becoming “carbon neutral” is now an aim for most companies, many believe that more must be done to mitigate the environmental impact of a business’ activities.

Removing a greater amount of carbon from the atmosphere than one emits is an ambitious yet admirable goal. Known as “carbon negativity”, it involves offsetting carbon emissions through either capture, sequestration, or avoidance – or a combination of the three.

Coffee, as an industry, has a lot to lose from the growing effects of climate change. But is it unreasonable to expect coffee businesses to become carbon negative?

To understand more about carbon negativity and how companies can work towards it, I spoke with Corporate Sustainability Professional at Colorado State University, Allie Stauss.

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The importance of carbon negativity for coffee brands

Coffee plants are extremely sensitive to minute changes in their environment. A small alteration to average rainfall or degrees Celsius can have a dramatic impact on the success of a harvest.

However, while coffee growing itself has a carbon footprint, a large percentage of emissions are as a result of transportation, roasting, and consumption.

Therefore, when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of coffee, Allie says it requires “all hands on deck”.

“The climate-related impacts associated with these emissions certainly threaten business as we know it,” she says, “particularly on the production side as increasing temperatures and erratic weather temperatures destabilise the yield and the quality of the coffee product.

“As entities with significant power in the coffee market,” she says, “coffee brands have both the responsibility and the opportunity to build a glidepath toward emission reductions and investments in carbon removal.

“Coffee is a product which offers a natural mechanism for drawing down carbon within its own supply chain – an approach known as insetting – through agroforestry and regenerative land management approaches. 

“This ability for coffee brands to not only reduce their emissions, but to actually sequester carbon within their supply chain positions the coffee industry as a leader in the pursuit to become carbon negative.”

carbon offsetting by growing trees

The challenges

Although coffee brands have the opportunity to lower carbon emissions within their own supply chain, Allie tells me that a number of challenges persist.

“Industry-level decarbonisation is a complex challenge,” she explains. “The most impactful action that will drive down emissions across the globe is a transition away from fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy sources from which all industries can power their activities.”

However, she adds that a cleaner power grid alone will not resolve the world’s emissions issue. Carbon removal and sequestration, known as “offsetting”, is required for activities where emissions cannot be avoided.

For example, by planting trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow or delivering energy-efficient equipment to communities in developing countries.

However, in recent years, offsetting has come in for some criticism. In particular, it is claimed that heavy emitters use offsetting as a mechanism for continuing their activities without recourse.

Nevertheless, Allie explains that, when designed carefully and deployed properly, offset projects serve a critical purpose.

“In the coffee industry, a large percentage of the sector’s emissions are classified as Scope 3, meaning they are derived from the supply chain,” she says.

“These come primarily from the coffee’s production and transportation, along with disposal of waste after the product’s end-use.

“These steps in the life cycle are all affiliated with emissions, so the industry must develop solutions for maximising the carbon retained in the soil, minimising (or eliminating) the amount of non-renewable fuel used to transport the goods, and optimising the circularity of the packaging to reduce the amount of waste created throughout the product’s lifecycle.”

carbon negative coffee

The road to carbon negativity in coffee

To become net carbon negative, coffee brands must not only take steps to decarbonise their own operations and develop the decarbonisation capacity of their suppliers, but also invest in offset projects.

For example, craft beer company BrewDog recently announced they were carbon negative after both lowering their emissions and purchasing a 9,308 acre plot of land in the Scottish Highlands on which to grow trees.

Allie explains that one of the most value-optimising ways to invest in offset projects is through insetting.

“Coffee brands should invest in projects that generate offset credits within the scope of their own supply chain, ideally in the origin areas from which they source their coffee.”

To do so, coffee brands can partner with organisations that have the capability to satisfy all of the criteria for implementing high-quality offset projects.

However, if they do this, Allie says it should be with considerations for permanence, leakage, and conditionality.

“To be carbon negative, the quantity of purchased offset credits must exceed the amount of emissions that the brand continues to generate through both its own operations and within its supply chain,” Allie says.

“To maximise the credibility of a claim related to emissions abatement and neutralisation, coffee brands can work with the Science Based Target Initiative to set realistic goals and roadmaps for achieving them.

“In October 2021, the SBTi released its inaugural Corporate Net Zero Standard, which provides guidance for corporations seeking to achieve a net zero balance of emissions.

“This might be a useful framework for coffee brands to explore if they are interested in creating net zero or net negative emissions.”

recyclable coffee bags

By now, it’s clear that significant and swift action must also be taken by business leaders, policymakers, and consumers more broadly to protect coffee-growing for future generations. While undoubtedly an ambitious target, working towards carbon negativity is something that all coffee businesses can do.

For roasters and coffee shops, one of the simplest places to start is by switching to sustainable packaging.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging options, from side gusset bags to flat-bottom pouches. Roasters can choose from kraft paper, rice paper, PLA, and LDPE, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

We also offer recyclable degassing valves and resealable zippers, while all our inks are water-based and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Our kraft paper bags and cups are FSC-certified and our compostable options are certified compostable by TÜV Austria.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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What are the challenges of becoming a carbon negative coffee business?

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