Don’t count carbs, count carbon

If you’ve ever wondered about the carbon footprint of a six-pack, read on for my fifth contribution to the Michigan Beer Guide dealing with brewing, beer and sustainability. This piece is reprinted with the permission of MBG. Be sure to pick up the May 2010 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, featuring the 2009 State of the Michigan Brewing Industry Report. This is also the “fifth anniversary” of my contributions to MBG. Cheers!

You may consider your potential carbon footprint when planning your next vacation or shopping for a new car. But, have you contemplated the carbon footprint of your beer? Every purchase we make, from shoes to brews, can be scrutinized in view of the total carbon footprint of the product in question.

True, examining every facet of one’s buying habits in terms of the environment may seem exhausting at best, or pointless at worst. But eco-conscious beer lovers may be both interested and surprised to discover the details of the overall environmental effect of their favorite beverage. The idea here isn’t to feel guilty about enjoying beer, but to realize which facets of the “life cycle” of a beer result in the most greenhouse gases (GHGs).

GHG emissions are directly related to a product’s carbon footprint. According to carbonfootprint.com, a carbon footprint is a “measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, and in particular [on] climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation, etc.”

“Alternatively empowered” and environmentally conscious New Belgium Brewing Company chose to face their carbon impact head-on by partnering with the Climate Conservancy to establish a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of the climate footprint of a six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale. According to New Belgium, an LCA is an “accounting of material and energy flows during each stage of a product’s life and the assessment of associated environmental impacts.” This LCA offers a revealing look at the carbon footprint of any beer.

To discover the LCA of Fat Tire, the Climate Conservancy first determined the “national average carbon cost” for producing a six-pack of beer. They then contacted New Belgium suppliers and delved into past energy bills and purchase orders to discover this particular brewery’s impact.

The assessment established that to create a six-pack of Fat Tire, it takes 3,188.8 grams of CO2 equivalents, or grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, the accepted unit of measure for the GHGs that contribute to climate change. Though the number in and of itself doesn’t mean much, New Belgium uses this number as a baseline to measure the results of future improvements to their production methods. The Fort Collins, Colorado brewery reports that they hope this tool will help improve the sustainability of both their company, and of the brewing industry overall.

To put this number in perspective, the LCA found that New Belgium emits 35 percent less GHGs than the average US beer producer. For this distinction, New Belgium earned the designation of Climate Conscious Silver (out of a rating system of Silver, Gold and Platinum).

The report breaks down the lifecycle of Fat Tire into the stages of upstream, entity and downstream. Taking a closer look at these three stages imparts a better understanding of why the carbon footprint of a six-pack is relatively so large.

First, the “upstream” stage deals with the acquisition and pre-processing of all raw materials. The scope of upstream emissions turns out to be huge, encompassing everything from packaging and non-consumable materials like glass, paper and adhesive, to consumable materials like malt and hops, taking into account agriculture, production and transportation. With so many factors to consider, perhaps it’s not surprising that upstream emissions account for 48 percent of the total emissions.

Of that 48 percent, glass manufacturing and transportation (21.6 percent of total GHG emissions) and the production and transportation of malt and barley (18.6 percent) that are responsible for a full 40 percent of Fat Tire’s total footprint.

Second, “entity” considers factors “directly associated with the manufacture and marketing of Fat Tire.” New Belgium already does a great job of limiting their emissions through such measures as using all wind power and adhering to an innovative, highly efficient brewing process. Therefore, their own operations and waste disposal account for a mere 5.4 percent of total emissions! The LCA reveals how New Belgium truly shines within their own facility and operations, acting as an inspiration to brewers large and small.

Finally, “downstream” emissions, those associated with the distribution, storage, consumption and final disposal of New Belgium’s flagship beer, account for the remaining 46.6 percent of the total footprint.

Especially in America, enjoying a beer is often inevitably linked to icy-cold refreshment. But maintaining a frosty product comes at a high environmental price: the assessment found that refrigeration represents “the most significant contribution to overall GHG emissions. … Nearly one kilogram of GHGs of the roughly three kilograms embodied by [Fat Tire] are emitted during the retail phase of the beer.”

In the end, the LCA concluded that “the business of creating any beer is linked inextricably to GHG emissions and many of these emissions are today unavoidable.” Emissions from the agricultural and packaging subsystems located “far upstream” from breweries make it difficult for the breweries themselves to manage these effects.

Beer is never going to be the most eco-friendly beverage. In fact, a government-sponsored study from the United Kingdom found that “alcoholic drinks contribute significantly to emissions, with the growing and processing of hops and malt into beer and whisky producing 1.5 percent of Britain’s greenhouse gases,” according to a May 2009 article in the UK’s “Telegraph.”

However, New Belgium did identify several areas for improvement. For example, they determined that “the production of synthetic fertilizers and related emissions from the soil are a substantial part of the GHGs allocated from malted barley,” so switching to organic barley or barley fertilized from organic sources would contribute to a reduced carbon footprint.

As for the refrigeration problem, this brewery concedes that they have little power over the design of the refrigerators used at the many retail centers that carry their beer. However, New Belgium considers that “efforts to minimize stock turnover time at retail, or the removal of some portion of product from refrigerated section altogether” might help to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of Fat Tire.

Both professional and hobby brewers can use this LCA to make informed decisions about their own operations; reducing energy consumption across the board will lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is only one small piece of the puzzle, and upstream and downstream factors remain largely out of reach.

As discussed in a previous MBG column, offering and consuming draft beer eliminates the problem of the single-use glass bottle. If canning beer is an option, this is also preferable to glass. Another step in the right direction is choosing organic brewing ingredients when possible. Finally, there’s an attractive solution (or fantasy) that brewers and beer enthusiasts alike can embrace: new breweries across Michigan, offering draught beer within a walking, biking or very short driving distance of every neighborhood throughout the state!

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