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Carbon Footprint of Coffee - how high is the Carbon Footprint of our favourite drink?

Coffee is essential for many of us.

Coffee gets us going in the morning, gives us that much-needed boost of energy during the day, and for many, it's also THE social drink to meet people.

But new research has now uncovered the impact our favorite drink is having on the planet.

Coffee is now recognized as one of the most unsustainable foods, consuming as much carbon as cheese and having a carbon footprint half that of one of the biggest culprits – beef. And this is all related to coffee only, not counting the milk that many people consume with their coffee.

But what is the so-called 'carbon footprint'?

According to the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the CO2 footprint, also known as the CO2 balance, is a measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions that are caused directly and indirectly by an activity or arise over the life stages of a product. The carbon footprint is applicable to people, organizations and companies, countries or events.

Not only the greenhouse gas emissions that arise directly during the production, use and disposal of the products are taken into account. The climate effects of purchased raw materials and services are also recorded. This gives companies a comprehensive picture of the impact of their production on the environment.

Why is coffee's carbon footprint so high?

Coffee needs a lot of water to grow, and even more so during processing. Often the water used for the treatment cannot be used again because it contains a lot of caffeine and has to be specially filtered or disposed of. In order to meet the ever-growing demand for coffee, large areas of natural rainforest are being cleared to convert them into coffee plantations, a very sad example of this is Brazil.

After working on the farm, the coffee has to be transported and this is done via cargo ships.

Ocean-going ships emit large amounts of sulfur oxides, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and soot. These substances are highly toxic and harm both the environment and human health. Nitrogen oxides (as a precursor of ground-level ozone) and soot also make a significant contribution to climate change, soot is even recognized as the second strongest climate driver after CO2.

In addition, around 50,000 people die prematurely every year in Europe alone as a result of ship exhaust fumes.

During the coffee roasting, exhaust gases are also generated and so far we haven’t even talked about packaging materials and the like.

Every year, over 9.5 billion kg of coffee is produced worldwide with a total trade value of US$30.9 billion. Global coffee demand is expected to triple by 2050, increasing pressure on forests and other habitats in the tropical regions where it is grown. Farmers simply run out of land to meet such demand.

Can coffee actually be sustainable?

Fortunately, there are more environmentally friendly ways of growing coffee.

Sustainable coffee cultivation with on-farm water treatment systems and new fermentation processes actually manage to reduce CO2 emissions during harvest by up to 77%.

But what remains are the problems coursed by transport and the huge demand.

Decarbonizing a cup of coffee

The cultivation of a single kilogram of Arabica coffee and its export to Germany causes greenhouse gas emissions that correspond to an average of 15.33 kg of carbon dioxide. Keep in mind, these are unroasted, green coffee beans (also known as "green coffee") that are produced using conventional methods. But by using less fertilizer and managing water and energy consumption more efficiently, we can already save some emissions.

There are many other ways to reduce the carbon footprint of sustainable coffee even further, e.g. B. replacing chemical fertilizers with organic waste and using renewable energy to power agricultural equipment.

An average double espresso contains about 18 g of green coffee, so 1 kg of it can make 112 espressos. Just one espresso has an average carbon footprint of around 0.28kg, but if grown sustainably it could be as little as 0.06kg.

But what if you like your coffee with milk?

Lattes have a carbon footprint of around 0.55kg, followed by cappuccinos at 0.41kg and flat whites at 0.34kg. However, if the coffee is produced sustainably, these values ​​drop to 0.33 kg, 0.2 kg and 0.13 kg respectively. Using non-dairy milk alternatives is one way to make white coffee greener.

A graph comparing the carbon footprint of different types of coffee beverages:

Opting for oat milk or other non-dairy alternatives can help coffee drinkers reduce their carbon footprint. Image: Nab & Maslin (2020)


Of course, it's not just the CO2 emissions that leave a bitter aftertaste. The coffee industry is plagued by human rights abuses and other environmental issues such as water pollution and habitat destruction. There are certification systems in place to ensure that coffee meets a minimum ethical standard on its journey from field to store shelf. These systems need constant improvement as the industry grows.

One of the most successful ways to make coffee more sustainable is how you consume it. If consumers see coffee as a luxury product and start investing more money in their daily cup, sustainable solutions can be worked on. We need conscious consumption and not pouring just any random coffee down our throughts without hesitation. Coffee is a commodity with enormous environmental and humanitarian responsibilities and should be treated as such.

As long as coffee is so high on the lost, even higher than Palm Oil, we have a long long way to go and the first step is by buying better coffee.

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