Should coffee roasters offset their carbon emissions?

Josephine Walbank
April 4, 2022
carbon offsetting

Climate change is one of the largest threats to global coffee production. Rising temperatures are expected to halve the land suitable for growing coffee by 2050.

To tackle the problem and meet consumers’ growing demands for sustainability, “carbon offsetting” has become an increasingly popular approach. Carbon offsetting schemes allow companies to invest in environmental projects to balance out their own carbon footprint.

The market for carbon offsets falls into two categories: voluntary and compliance. Voluntary offsets are bought by companies or individuals at their own discretion. Compliance offsets, on the other hand, are used to meet legally binding caps in carbon offset schemes.

However, there are concerns about whether these offsetting schemes are the best way to combat the carbon emission problem.

To find out more about carbon offsets, I spoke with Corporate Sustainability Professional at Colorado State University, Allie Stauss.

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carbon offsetting trees

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a concept in which businesses fund initiatives to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The idea is to reduce the net volume of emissions for which a business is responsible. In effect, they can achieve a greener carbon footprint. Through this strategy, businesses can choose to reduce their carbon emissions or achieve a carbon neutral status.

One of the most common approaches is for businesses to pay other organisations to complete a carbon reduction initiative on its behalf. This may include planting trees, investing in eco-conscious technologies, or buying carbon credits from carbon reduction accreditation.

Another common strategy is for companies to invest in developing countries. This is to help producers and their communities adopt more sustainable approaches.

Roasters looking to offset the carbon emissions involved in transporting coffee can use an offset website to calculate the total amount of CO2 produced.

This tool will tell a roaster how many carbon credits they need to buy to successfully offset the amount of CO2 produced. Once these credits have been purchased, the roaster has offset their carbon emissions for this element of their production process.

A carbon credit purchased through an offset scheme would typically cost around $11 (£8) per tonne of CO2.

Essentially, the more businesses invest in green initiatives, the lower the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere.

However, the concept of carbon offsetting has received criticism from many influential voices in sustainability. Notably, Greenpeace has called carbon offsetting a distraction from the real solutions to climate change.

“While carbon offsetting has become the object of significant controversy,” says Allie, who is also a certified supply chain analyst. “It has an important place in the conversation about greenhouse gas emission reductions.”

coffee roasting emissions

Is carbon offsetting the best option for roasters?

While many roasters recognise the importance of reducing carbon emissions, there is some dispute about whether carbon offsetting is the best way to do it.

“The criticism around carbon offsets is multifaceted, but generally boils down to two key arguments,” says Allie, who is also a certified soil health advocate. “One is that it does not effectively address the root of the issue and is seen as a band-aid solution.

“Two is that credits are challenging to verify against the criteria of additionality, permeance, leakage, and conditionally.”

Greenwashing is a recently coined term that embodies the complexity of carbon offsetting and other similar initiatives.

Essentially, the term implies that a company is giving consumers false or misleading information that makes it appear to be more sustainable than it is.

Many influential environmental activists have criticised carbon offsetting as an example of greenwashing. This is because consumers are led to believe a company is carbon neutral and has no impact on the environment, because of its carbon offsetting.

In reality, carbon offsetting enables a company to continue its current practices, however high their emissions may be and without feeling the need to make changes.

It allows businesses to continue producing emissions and high levels of waste, without being held accountable or losing customers unless they implement change.

For roasters who are considering adopting carbon offsetting initiatives, it is vital they ensure their investment is achieving the reduction expected.

For example, if a roaster is paying to plant trees, they must be sure there was not an existing plan to re-forest the area at some point, regardless of the roasters’ investment.

While it is a multi-faceted debate, Allie says the best way to reduce the environmental impact of your business is to minimise the amount of emissions released in the first place.

“I believe we should pursue all available options during this critical decade and continue to improve the rigour and quality of our climate interventions over time,” Allie says.

She adds coffee roasters should reduce emissions generated within their operations and supply chain as much as possible. “However, once those levers have been pulled, roasters should also pursue offsetting options to counterbalance the emissions they continue to emit until they can find alternative pathways for making absolute reductions.”

 While carbon neutrality as a function of reductions, removals, and offsets is not a fixed endpoint, Allie states a crucial point is for roasters to be transparent with their stakeholders.

“Roasters must clearly state their approach and acknowledge the difference between absolute reductions and offset credits to avoid the appearance of greenwashing,” she says.

coffee plants

Why is reducing carbon emissions important to the coffee industry?

Rising global temperatures and extreme weather phenomenons have made it increasingly difficult to grow coffee.

As a result, the price of coffee will continue to rise. Research done by IBISWorld shows the global coffee price rose by 21.6% in 2021 alone.

One of the coffee varieties that has been significantly affected by climate change is arabica coffee. Last year, Brazil, one of the largest arabica-growing areas, saw a devastating drop in summer temperatures. As a result, a third of the country’s arabica crop was completely eliminated.

This is just one instance of the dramatic impact climate change can have on coffee-producing communities. Crops that have taken years to establish can be wiped out in a month due to factors that are out of the growers’ control.

In light of this, roasters have a responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, eco-consciousness is a vital part of ensuring the success of the specialty coffee sector.

Carbon neutrality is important among consumers, with 66% saying they are happy to pay more for sustainable alternatives. More significantly, 84% of global consumers state a poor environmental track record may cause them to stop buying from a company.

Therefore, in order to keep their customer base, it is vital that organisations reduce their carbon footprint.

In the long run, tackling carbon emissions at the source will have a bigger impact than simple offsetting. Therefore, roasters should use offsetting as part of their sustainability strategies, rather than it being the only area of focus.

By adopting more sustainable practices, such as using recyclable coffee packaging, those working in the coffee supply chain can help reduce the carbon footprint of the industry.

At MTPak Coffee our range of fully compostable, recyclable, and biodegradable packaging contributes to improving the circular economy, further reducing the supply chain’s carbon footprint.

Our degassing valves are fully recyclable and our water-based inks are low in volatile organic compounds, so they can be easily removed for recycling or composting.

For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact the team.

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