How to measure the carbon footprint of coffee production

  • Sancoffee and CleverCoffee have developed a methodology that accurately measures the total carbon emissions of one lot of coffee
  • This is particularly pertinent, as a recent survey revealed a 40% error rate in emissions calculations among sampled businesses
  • Accurate calculations will enable targetted carbon reduction strategies at the relevant areas in the supply chain

THE COFFEE industry has an opportunity to lead by example.

The Paris Climate Agreement set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees. However, global temperatures continue to climb – the need for sustainable action is more urgent than ever.

As well as being a contributor to climate change, the coffee industry is also one of the most vulnerable to its effects. Some believe the environmental vulnerability of the coffee sector provides the greatest incentive to undertake carbon reduction projects.

“The coffee industry is one of the most vulnerable to climate change and, therefore, we need to lead by example,” says Fabricio Andrade, CEO of Sancoffee.

Many argue that the best way to overcome these challenges is for there to be collaboration across the supply chain. For example, Sancoffee and CleverCoffee have developed an innovative methodology that spans from farm to cup.

It measures emissions based on internationally recognised guidelines, using the Greenhouse Gases protocol (GHG protocol) following the guidelines set out by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The protocol addressed the need for a standardised way to measure emissions following the Paris Climate Agreement.

What the initiative between Sancoffee and CleverCoffee highlights, however, is the pressing need for businesses in the coffee industry to go beyond calculating their emissions and pursue active reduction strategies.

Standardised frameworks

Despite this, their methodology demonstrates that thorough data collection is crucial for reducing the carbon impact of coffee production. By measuring emissions across the supply chain, we can target reduction strategies in the right areas.

“Accurate calculations in every industry, not only coffee, will give us a clear understanding of where we stand and make collective decisions on where to cut emissions to make it possible to reach the overall goal,” says Fabricio.

Sancoffee and CleverCoffee’s Impact No 01 initiative can be considered a positive step towards this goal – using globally standardised frameworks to measure the carbon emissions of one lot of coffee across the entire value chain.

“The collaboration about this started with a joint idea, that we wanted to show that if you work on taking the necessary steps in each part of the value chain, we can actually make a big difference,” says Lindy Brogaard, head of coffee and part-owner of CleverCoffee. “By combining our individual work it is possible to be fully transparent about the carbon footprint all the way from the coffee plant at the farm to our end customers.”

Fabricio explains that the methodology has enabled both companies to accurately measure and effectively manage emissions across various operations and value chains involved in producing Impact No 01. It has also set a benchmark for the rest of the industry.

“Using the GHG protocol introduced by the organisation with such an international authority as World Resources Institute (WRI) does not only give us guidance on how to do it, but it also gives the whole industry an opportunity to compare the data and set benchmarks,” he says.

“The main goal of this initiative is not just to present the Sancoffee data, but to give ourselves and others a way to evaluate where we stand in comparison to where we want to be as a community and how effective our initiatives are. This is only possible if everyone is using the same methodology.”

The right tool for the job

Addressing the issue of measurement will become increasingly relevant for coffee farmers in the coming years. As more coffee-consuming markets implement regulatory requirements and restrictions on the emissions of imported agricultural products, empowering producers to calculate their emissions will become more important.

Furthermore, measuring their carbon impact doesn’t just equip producers with the right information to enter major consuming markets – it can also add value to their coffee.

“Meeting these regulatory requirements is a must – but to scale up these positive impacts, there needs to be short-term incentives to producers,” says Fabricio. “Carbon calculations could be this tool to help producers, in partnership with roasters, add more value to their production.

“Carbon calculations can also be used to create and convey a complementary revenue stream to coffee producers by compensating them for their environmental services provided to the global community.”

As such, it is imperative that carbon calculation models are developed – for coffee farmers as well as the industry at large.

Acting on these measurements

The coffee supply chain is complex and involves various stages, each contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact. While the ability to measure emissions at each stage of the supply chain is a significant step forward, Impact No 01 demonstrates that more is needed.

Implementing targeted carbon reduction strategies, informed by reliable data, is essential to offset the impact generated in the process.

For example, the roasting process can be a significant contributor to carbon emissions. By investing in a more energy-efficient coffee roaster, CleverCoffee were able to reduce their roasting emissions to just 0.16kg per kilogram of coffee.

Similarly, Sancoffee’s bio-recovery program focuses on restoring degraded land by growing seedlings, planting native trees, and protecting water sources. This has significant benefits for soil health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration.

As a part of this initiative, Sancoffee conducted a carbon balance assessment in 20 coffee farms to understand their greenhouse gas emissions and removals. From the overall result, the total GHG emitted was 39,563 tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). The main sources of emissions were: Soil correction and fertilisation (44%), animal production (30%), and fuel combustion (13%).

The total GHG removed by the farms was 68,798 tCO2e, with the main sources being: Native forest (40%), coffee crops (36%), planted forest (18%), and land use change (3%).

The study revealed that all 20 Sancoffee coffee farms were carbon-negative. This signifies that, while coffee farms contribute to GHG emissions through agricultural activities, they also play a significant role in GHG removal. As a result, the carbon removals associated with the Impact No 01 lot were over 3kg per kilogram of coffee at farm level.

This is evidence that a more sustainable production model can exist even at the stage in the supply chain commonly considered to produce the most greenhouse gasses – it just hinges on agricultural standards.

Applying this to the broader industry, the first step towards achieving carbon neutrality (or better) is adopting a standardised calculation framework as used for Impact No 01. In this way, businesses can have greater assurance that the data they collect is reliable and actionable. After that, industry stakeholders have an opportunity to interrogate and alter their operations and, ultimately, demonstrate a commitment to greater environmental responsibility.