Will 2020 be a tipping point for climate change in the global coffee industry?

Since the 2016 Paris Agreement first set into motion global commitments from 195 countries to slow climate change by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, companies and organisations around the world have been making their own commitments to lessen their respective carbon footprints. The agreement set an ambitious goal of limiting the global temperature increase to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. In working toward that longer-term target, the Agreement required countries to set shorter-term commitments for 2030, and to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Four years in and a decade from the first benchmark, 2020 is shaping up to be a year of more significant pledges and change, including from the coffee industry. In January, the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made its focus once again on climate change. There, global asset management firm BlackRock announced plans to rebuild its multitrillion-dollar portfolio around climate change and the McKinsey Global Institute released an in-depth “Climate Risk & Response” report. Earlier that month, Microsoft committed to removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits by 2030, as well as removing its 45 years of historic carbon emissions by 2050.

From the coffee sector, Starbucks announced its commitment to become “resource positive” by 2030, and back in October 2019, illycaffé committed to carbon neutrality by 2033, its centennial anniversary.

How coffee adapts
Climate change has manifested across regions and industries in various ways and its impacts are being felt worldwide, especially in the agricultural sector. Meanwhile, agriculture itself is a significant contributor to climate change through direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. The coffee industry is not exempt from either.

“Not only is climate change threatening the future suitability of growing regions with major shifts or entire loss, it is also amplifying the challenges already facing the industry, from aging coffee trees and pest and disease outbreaks to poor management practices and limited investment funding for implementing change,” reads the Brewing up Climate Resilience in the Coffee Sector report, produced in 2019 by a consortium of industry climate leaders.

The report highlights five critical climate issues: loss of suitable areas for coffee production, increased water stress, outbreak of pest and diseases, poor flowering and cherry development, and growing vulnerability of smallholder coffee farmers. The common climate factors behind most of these are increasing temperatures on average and variable, erratic weather.

“Weather is something farmers have always had to contend with and it has always been one of their biggest risks,” explains Hanna Neuschwander, Communications Director at World Coffee Research (WCR). “It’s just a lot more unpredictable now and the trajectory of it is changing in a way that is really difficult.”

In response, scientists have attempted to create climate models to identify patterns and make useful forecasts. But as climate change has made weather increasingly unpredictable, historical weather and past observations are less indicative of future trends and, thus, of limited use to guide decision making and adaptation measures.

“We have ongoing research projects for this, but we don’t yet have the more granular information that is important to guiding farm management,” says Christian Bunn, scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “Because our climate models are not at the level of accuracy that allows us to give specific recommendations for certain management practices, we’re not saying what farmers should do [so much as we are trying to answer] the question of how we can increase resilience and how we can [equip] farmers to make the decisions themselves.”

As much as Bunn stresses the importance of data and analysis in assessing adaptation measures, he stresses the importance of good agricultural practices. Some more common adaptation measures include irrigation, mulching, pruning, shade management, and terracing.

A more intensive measure that has been explored is expanding or relocating farms out of lower-altitude regions that are increasingly unsuitable for coffee growing. Although estimates  skew more toward decreasing land suitability, some areas that were previously unsuitable for coffee will eventually become available as the planet warms. This factor may enable relocation for larger producers, but relocation otherwise remains too expensive or unfeasible for the average smallholder farmer.

Concerning coffee plant varieties, those that can withstand hotter, drier climates and pest and disease are essential in adapting coffee to climate change. In its multi-location variety trial (MLVT), which launched in 2015, WCR is testing a number of varieties in diverse growing regions around the world, including in hot, dry climate zones where a lot of varieties haven’t been tested before, Neuschwander tells Global Coffee Report. One of WCR’s trial sites is in Zambia, where the hottest month maximum last year was 34°C.

Heat tolerance is of particular interest to WCR because the biggest driver in designating a region unsuitable for coffee is actually heat, says Neuschwander, referencing research from Bunn and CIAT. “So heat tolerance will clearly be a breeding target for climate resilience, as well as resilience to variability because it has the most dramatic impact on farmers.”

How coffee mitigates
While the urgency for adaptation is very real for coffee farmers, endless experts and studies warn that global warming is currently outpacing efforts to curb it. This is where many organisations and companies have stepped up to actively mitigate the coffee industry’s contribution to global warming, ultimately working toward the greater global goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

After initially setting an ambitious goal to become carbon neutral by 2021, its 200-year anniversary of independence, Costa Rica decided to double down on climate action in line with the Paris Agreement. At the time of the initial goal setting in 2007, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali was also developing nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs). Given Costa Rica’s climate commitment and coffee’s role there, Costa Rica launched the first NAMA for coffee – also making coffee the first agriculture NAMA worldwide.

According to María Paz Lobo Zeledón, Project Manager in traceability and environmental management at the Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE), NAMA Café has five areas of work, including at the farm and mill levels; in measurement, reporting and verification; in promotion and communication; and in financing.

Through ICAFE, NAMA Café has trained more than 8500 farmers in good agronomical practices specifically to reduce carbon emissions, says Lobo. At the mill level, 62 of Costa Rica’s 272 coffee mills have become low carbon and three are completely carbon neutral.

Aside from positive impacts on the planet, one of the biggest outcomes for producers under NAMA Café is that “they can eventually sell their coffee for a higher price because its low carbon or even carbon neutral,” she tells GCR. “So as a country and a sector, our goal is to eventually produce 100 per cent low-carbon coffee.”

What’s more, Costa Rica now has a plethora of lessons learned, insight, and methodologies to share on a global scale, Lobo adds. “Although NAMA Café has been entirely linked to Costa Rican coffee, it should eventually shift to be seen more as a global initiative as other countries start adopting their own coffee NAMAs.”

Land degradation, deforestation, and fertiliser use are the main sources of carbon emissions from agriculture. So natural mitigation measures include proper land and soil management, reducing deforestation and implementing reforestation, and switching or reducing fertilisers. Another measure is reducing water use, largely in wet processing. Where possible, producers can switch to a semi-wash process or even fully dry process.

At the 2019 Ernesto Illy International Coffee Awards in October, illycaffé Chairman Andrea Illy announced that the company was dedicated to “the mother of all causes: climate change,” he said, highlighting carbon sequestration and soil enrichment.

“Everything starts from the soil. Besides being where plants are rooted, the soil is the second-largest carbon sink after oceans, with a capacity of three times as much as the atmosphere.” In March, illycaffé adopted Benefit Corporation status for its commitments to sustainable and integrated agriculture, energy efficiency and reduction of emissions, as well as quality of life for stakeholders.

While illycaffé is pushing a bigger “virtuous agriculture” movement as part of its goal of carbon neutrality by 2033, Starbucks seems to be focused on the later stages of the coffee value chain in its commitment to be “resource positive” by 2030.

In a public letter in January, CEO Kevin Johnson promised formalised goals and action plans in 2021, the company’s 50th anniversary. For now, Starbucks has set five preliminary benchmarks based on comprehensive footprint assessments by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Quantis. Namely, this includes more environmentally friendly menus, packaging, stores, and overall operations, and investing in conservation all along the supply chain. Through these priorities, Starbucks hopes to halve carbon emissions, water withdrawal, and waste sent to landfills by 2030.

Path toward progress
Not unlike coffee farmers’ current operating environment, one of the biggest constraints on climate change progress in the coffee industry is the significant lack of resources at the farm level, including financing, infrastructure, tools, training, and other support.

While many producing countries have dedicated government institutions for coffee, the level of investment into climate research, extension programs, farmer organisation, and other critical training and support is often lacking, according to the Climate Resilience report.

“The countries that are succeeding on a meta scale are the ones that have coordinated institutional support across all of these domains,” adds Neuschwander. “They’ve figured out a way to [provide] higher access to training, credit for farmers to renovate their farms, and investments in the sector in their countries.”

The other hurdle is buy-in and subsequent participation all along the supply chain. Illy believes that success in his company’s goal is only possible if there is strong engagement from the grower communities and other partners. “Growers need to believe and understand to appreciate the advantage of this virtuous agriculture revolution, as well as the capacity to implement the practices,” he explained in October. “And we need an open innovation system, with a network of innovators and information sharing. There is no way we can implement a system like virtuous agriculture by teaching top-down to growers what they must do.”

For NAMA Café, it helped to highlight climate action’s positive impact on a producer’s bottom line. “A lot of the initiatives that reduce carbon emissions have an economical component,” Lobo tells GCR. “For example, a lot of the good agronomical mitigation practices also mean diminishing costs at the farm level. It’s easier to sell an initiative when the [stakeholder] can also see the monetary benefit.”

Although consumers are increasingly conscious about their impact on the environment, extending through to their favourite brands and products, buy-in and participation at the consumer level is still lacking.

“Even though all [climate change] mitigation is important, in the life cycle of coffee, farming and processing isn’t the biggest impact,” says Lobo. “The greatest environmental impact is at the consumer level.” She stresses that both adaptation and mitigation efforts need more support from consumers and consuming countries.

According to the WWF and Quantis assessment, Starbucks generated 868 kilotonnes of coffee cups and other waste in 2018. But when the company tried to convert one-quarter of its customers to reusable cups between 2008 and 2015, the effort fell flat, indicating that the industry just wasn’t ready for widespread consumer uptake.

But in light of the big signals from big business so far this year, perhaps 2020 is the tipping point for climate action among coffee consumers, too.

“Today, more than ever, the world needs leadership in environmental sustainability,” said Johnson. “We agree with the consensus of scientific experts who note that without drastic action from everyone – governments, companies, and all of us as individuals – adapting to the impact of climate change in the future will be far more difficult and costly, taking a toll on our supply chains, our business, and more importantly, the lives of everyone involved.”

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