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Episode 3: The Future of Coffee Farms and Climate Change


The sustainable future of coffee

The specialty coffee industry’s top threat isn’t supply chain shortages or increased competition. It’s climate change. In this episode, we discuss why climate change is forcing coffee producers to rethink their livelihoods, how coffee shop owners can reduce their carbon footprint, and what consumers can do to ensure coffee has a fruitful and sustained future on planet Earth.

Meet the Guests

Kamal Bengougam is the Group Commercial Director at Eversys, the Swiss manufacturer of fully automatic espresso machines, and ironically a fan of all things old‑school (Linkedin). Hylan Joseph is the West Coast Operations Director for Espresso Partners, as well as the former chair and one of the founders of the Coffee Technicians Guild (Linkedin). Jai Lott is the Head of Experience for Blank Street Coffee (Linkedin).

Key Takeaways from the Episode

Let’s dive into the top points discussed in this episode.

From Farming to Demand, Climate Change’s Biggest Target is Coffee Farmers

For some, the idea of running a coffee farm may sound romantic. Spending your days among nature, having access to some of the world’s best coffee beans, and watching a beautiful product blossom right before your eyes—who wouldn’t want to be a coffee farmer?
Marianella had that same naive perspective when she and her husband purchased approximately 5 hectares (~12 acres) of land for coffee production. Like many others, they quickly learned that this romantic dream was far from the truth.
On top of the rigors of an agricultural product, climate change is actively diminishing their ability to grow a quality coffee plant and fruit.
“I used to be able to harvest 60 to 70 fanegas (a measurement of coffee beans.) And now, everybody wishes for 30 to 35 to be a good average. That’s half of the yield that people are actually aiming towards. That’s how much it has affected.”
Marianella mentioned she doesn’t know of a single farmer who’s not worried about climate change. Coffee is an extremely volatile product and is susceptible to weather events, and the rapidly shifting weather patterns have everyone concerned.
As a result of climate change’s effects, many farmers are reconsidering coffee production, as it is no longer a feasible means of making a living. But simply making the switch to another agricultural product is not an option due to the landscape and available resources. Many are also open to selling land for real estate.
The economic impacts of climate change on coffee farmers also impact the future of coffee shops as we know it. Leaving many to ponder, “How can my coffee shop have a tangible impact on climate change?”

The Largest Portion of Coffee’s Carbon Footprint Comes From Cafes

Think about all the energy used in a coffee shop or roastery.
  • Espresso machines run 24/7
  • Water is heated and pumped through equipment
  • Electricity is used to power equipment, WiFi, and lighting
  • Transportation of green coffee, roasted coffee, and supplies to and from the shop
This means the largest portion of the coffee industry’s carbon footprint comes from coffee shops around the world. Kim Elena Ionescu argues this means coffee shops have the most responsibility for a cup of coffee’s carbon footprint.
Yet, coffee farmers are bearing the burden of its effects.
Fortunately, there are several ways coffee shop can reduce their overall carbon footprint, such as:
  • Switching from dairy to non‑dairy milk as the standard latte ingredient
  • Turning off the espresso machine at night to reduce energy usage
  • Designing your space with zero‑emission transportation options in mind
  • Leveraging energy‑saving technology, lighting, and equipment throughout
As Kim mentions, these small changes will empower your coffee shop community to do the same. And, the collective effort will do far more to lower the coffee industry’s carbon footprint than a reusable cup could.

Filling the Industry Information Void

As an industry, we still don’t know all that much about what activities contribute to our carbon footprint. To fill that information void, Bellwether partnered with a research group called Boundless.
This study sought to understand the effects of gas roasters, compared to electric roasters, on communities where the energy grid is clean and dirty.
Fernanda Avila, the Senior Research Analyst at Boundless, discovered that:
“Roasting with electricity in Costa Rica is five times cleaner compared to natural gas.”
In Texas, where the energy grid is considered to be dirty, gas roasters produced 1.29 kilograms of carbon in comparison to 0.98 from an electric roaster.
The study found that much of the carbon footprint of a gas roaster came from the afterburner—which coffee roasters over a certain kilogram threshold are required to have by United States law.
“For every roaster above five pounds in the United States, there is a 30% increase in potential carbon output.”
Even with various technologies available, the one clear path to reducing your carbon footprint is to use an electric roaster on the cleanest energy grid available.
As Kim puts it:
“Depending on what you do in coffee, your ability to effect change might be different from someone else’s.”
The biggest takeaway from these conversations is the proof that the greatest generator of carbon emissions is at the cafe level and the largest group impacted by this are producers.
When looking for ways to make an impact where you are, look beyond the reusable cup and consider what tangible change you can make.

Episode Mentions

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