Specialty green coffee traders, sourcing from 26 origins on behalf of over 1000 roasters.


The KTP project comes to a close: Dr. Amanda Caudill

The Carbon KTP project collaboration has come to a close. For the last two and half years, we have been enmeshed in learning about emissions associated with coffee production and trying to understand what measures could be taken to reduce them.

That daunting 25-page work plan that sent me into a panic the first week was actually quite useful and provided a good roadmap for the project. We definitely took a few detours, but in the end have come up with a methodology and carbon calculator model that we are proud of.

Our multiple rounds of fieldwork, surveying coffee producers with our staff in northern Peru to test and revise our methods and emissions model, have paid off.

We now have a model that allows us to efficiently and accurately measure emissions on coffee farms which we felt was something that was lacking in the industry after our initial investigative research.

We had a few main criteria in the development of our carbon accounting methodology and model. The first was that the model be accompanied by a survey – and it was important to us to design questions for the survey that the coffee producers could answer off hand and not just ask for data inputs that, although are needed for emissions calculations, do not make sense in the real world.

The second was that we needed to design a model that was transferrable for multiple origins, adaptable to different ways of growing and processing coffee, and feasible to implement. We wanted to strike a balance between creating a method that was scientifically sound but also implementable, realistic and efficient.

As much as the scientist in me wanted to do research on emissions on just one farm for months, measuring and collecting data on each and every possible variable, is not realistic or even necessary. We know what the main contributors of emissions are for coffee production and processing which make up the vast majority of emissions – so we streamlined our emissions model to capture those elements.

Main takeaways and learnings

Overall, I was surprised by the lack of information and by the misinformation out there on coffee and emissions. One academic article completely skewed the results for emissions for “sustainable” vs. “conventional” coffee yet I heard that article quoted by non-coffee people who were calculating coffee emissions on multiple occasions.

Granted, emissions in coffee are complicated – there’s a lot going on. And at present, there is no real granular guidance to support those who don’t have capacity to understand a multi-year deep dive into emissions like we did.

Many companies are reduced to using one number in a database and calling it “coffee emissions”- whether it be shade grown or full sun, organic or conventional, washed or natural, grown with tons of fertilizers or efficient fertilizer use. And we know from our research that doesn’t work. All these things impact emissions and by just lumping this all together, it does a disservice to producers who are farming coffee in an environmentally conscious way.

Additionally, because of the lack of guidance and alignment in the industry – there are multiple different scope boundaries, methods and data being used to calculate emissions in coffee. We ran several different models using the data from our pilot study and found a discrepancy of 77 million kg of CO2e for Falcon’s Scope 3 coffee emissions – just based on the calculation methods used! This begs the question – how can anyone claim to be net zero in coffee when we don’t know our baseline emissions even are in the first place?

I think another surprising takeaway for me was the nuances associated with emission mitigation options for farms. Almost all of them could have a negative impact on coffee yield or quality, if not done correctly – like reducing amounts of fertilisers inappropriately; planting too many shade trees for that area or not maintaining them correctly or selecting trees that don’t work for that region or elevation or do not mix well with coffee plants; or the natural process going awry. All of these are risks to the producers and their incomes. Mitigation projects must be designed and thought through carefully.

Another surprising finding was that one of the main emission sources for coffee production is the compost made of the cherry pulp once the coffee is de-pulped. The emissions would be worse if the pulp were landfilled or piled up instead of composted. The microbial process involved in the degradation of organic matter is what causes the emissions. I’ve seen some research about adding different microbes to speed up that process or perhaps there are options for creating another product for the cherry…but as of now, there’s just not an easy answer. We’ll put that one on our ever-growing list of things to investigate further.

Was it Socrates that said, “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know”?

Next steps

So, where do we go from here? We will continue to build on the emissions work that we have started – adding in new origins and increasing our knowledge and gathering more data.

Another focus will be mindful mitigation projects that have a dual purpose of reducing emissions and benefitting the producers.

We are interested in a holistic view of sustainability – for which emissions are a part, but not the whole picture.

Our work in emissions dovetails nicely with biodiversity in coffee, which happens to be my main area of expertise and is a topic that is starting to take hold in the coffee industry and one that we are well-prepared and excited to dive into.

Biodiversity couldn’t be any more complicated than emissions…or could it? More to come.

I want to take a moment to thank our amazing project team – our academic advisor, Dr Tim Laing, our data analyst, Harry Ablett, the sustainability team and management at Falcon, the team from Falcon Coffees Peru and all of the producers in Jaén who participated in the surveys, and also our clients who have continued to ask questions, be engaged and pushed us to be resourceful and find answers.