Global Warming and Tea Primer (Going Carbon Positive Part 1)

Posted by Matcha Alternatives on


Author: Luce Brandt Environmental Researcher at MatchaAlternatives.com
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Our Earth is changing rapidly: we have experienced exceeding temperature highs, increasingly intense natural disasters, and the first “Gigafire” - a blaze burning one million acres of land (1). Global warming is threatening life as we know it, this is the time to take whatever action you are capable of. Here at Matcha Alternatives, this means evaluating our small business carbon footprint, and moving towards carbon neutrality and then on to becoming CO2 positive. 

My name is Luce, and I joined the Matcha Alternatives team to help with environmental research and carbon footprint analysis. As an Environmental Science major, I am invested in climate change solutions and action, and I will keep you updated on our journey as we research and reduce our carbon footprint. More blogs to come! 

So let’s get started: in this post I will cover global warming basics (even avid tea lovers will appreciate reminders of handy CO2 facts and percentages), while considering the environmental impact of tea cultivation and consumption.

Keep reading to find out:

  • What are greenhouse gases? Where does tea fit in?
  • What activities release carbon? How much does the tea industry release?
  • What is a carbon footprint, and how can it be calculated?
  • How does a small business reduce its footprint?

We have not found any carbon positive tea shops so far, and in fact we aim not only to be neutral but the first carbon positive tea shop. If there are some tea shops out there that do offset their entire footprint (all the way from tea source to boiling your kettle as is our plan) we would love to hear from any if they exist!

Every section below includes a “What about tea?” area to see how tea fits into all of this too. :-)

Cooling towers releasing water vapor, a greenhouse gasCooling towers releasing water vapor, a greenhouse gas

Greenhouse Gases & Global Warming

Greenhouse gases (GHG) are a natural phenomenon that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, just like the glass roof of a greenhouse traps heat (2). Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, human activities and energy consumption have increased the amount of these gases in the atmosphere (3). The massive quantity of GHG gases released annually are not sustainable, and the warming of our planet is fast approaching the point of no return.

In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement set a goal not to exceed a global warming of over 1.5 -2 degrees Celsius. Is it possible to remain within these limits? According to the Yale School of Environment, even with an aggressive mitigation plan, it is estimated that the “point of no return” will occur as soon as 2035 (4).

Just 15 years away. 

It is important to note that even if we meet these goals, our world will be drastically changed. As the planet warms, the rate of natural disasters, permanent ecosystem damage, species extinction, and other negative effects will accelerate dramatically.

Remember, global warming isn’t just warming, it is “climate destabilization”.

To understand the activities that cause global warming, let’s first define the most common greenhouse gases.

What are the most common greenhouse gases?

  • Carbon dioxide: released when burning fossil fuels such as coal. Makes up 75% of human emissions (5). About 80% of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels (6).
  • Methane: commonly from livestock, and agriculture processes. While Methane makes up a much smaller portion of emissions, its impact is 25 times greater in its greenhouse effect.… some food for thought.
  • Nitrous Oxide: comes from agriculture and factory farms. And, while a very tiny percent of emissions, this gas is 300 times stronger than carbon.
  • Water Vapor: Increases humidity and produces a heat trapping effect (7).

These gases, once released, can last in the atmosphere from several years to thousands (8).

What greenhouse gases does tea produce?

Tea production releases greenhouse gases, as with all industrial agriculture. For example, organic loose leaf tea is connected with methane, since manure is used as fertilizer (9). Other nonorganic teas that rely on pesticides and soil fumigant contribute Nitrous oxide to the atmosphere (10).

Tea cultivation and transport also requires energy, which as noted above largely comes from fossil fuels. So with every moment of energy consumption, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.

 

 Traffic in a city

Transportation is the biggest sector of Greenhouse gas emissions (13)

What activities release carbon? 

Carbon Dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas. But don’t worry your breathing isn’t causing the planet’s demise! According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 5 main sectors of greenhouse gas emissions (13):
  1. Transportation: Petroleum for cars trucks and planes
  2. Electricity: Fossil fuels and coal
  3. Industry: Commodities, steel & cement, food processing, mining and construction
  4. Commercial & Residential: Maintaining buildings, heating and cooling, waste
  5. Agriculture: Soil management, livestock produce and resulting manure (13)
Chart showing sectors of greenhouse gas emissions

 

What tea-related activities release carbon?

Throughout tea cultivation, energy is used and greenhouse gases are released.  Here is a simplified impact list, but subscribe to this blog series for my upcoming blogs where I will dive into the details!

  • Cultivation stage
    • Machinery takes energy (often outdated and inefficient)
    • Pesticides: contribute GHGs
    • The withering, rolling, fermenting, sorting, and drying process takes energy
    • Wood, often burned during the drying process, releases sequestered carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
  • Packaging
    • Creating containers takes energy and resources
  • Transport
    • Petroleum and fuel for vehicles and planes produce greenhouse gases
  • Use stage
    • Boiling water uses energy from fossil fuels (11)

    Tea growing on a plantation in Sri Lanka

    Tea Plantation Harvest in Sri Lanka


    While each step in isolation does not appear too severe, it is important to note the incredibly large scale of tea production globally. Aside from water, tea is the most commonly consumed beverage worldwide (9)!

    Each year tea production increases at about 4.4%, and reached a total of 5.812 million tons in 2017 (12). That’s a whole lot of tea...

    And yes, a whole lot of emissions.

    It is important to note that the majority of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions occur during tea processing and consumption (9). 

    Sadly, yes, boiling the water for your tea contributes the most carbon than any other part of the process (11). As a consumer, you play a significant role in tea’s carbon footprint, and awareness of your actions can go a long way!

    Tips for saving energy during your tea preparation 

    • Only heat the water you will need (don’t get distracted at the sink!)
    • Use gas for boiling water when possible. There is only one conversion loss from burning the fossil fuels to heating your water. In contrast, electric heating has four potential losses:
      • Converting the Fossil fuels to electricity
      • Energy loss along the wires of the grid
      • Energy loss at the transformer as the voltage is stepped up and down
      • And then finally the heating of the kettle 
    • Use tap water instead of bottled water
    • And if you are like me, try not to forget you have just boiled water!  Reheating it of course doubles the carbon used at this stage… (11)
    • Lastly, choose loose leaf!

    It takes 10 times more carbon to produce bagged tea than loose leaf tea (14). You can also buy bulk loose leaf tea to reduce frequent shipping and use a stainless steel infuser instead of DIY teabags.

    If you want to learn more about the loose leaf teas we have available, check out the post 

    Everything You Need to Know About Tea

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    Traffic on a bridge from cars and trucks

    Transportation causes 29% of global annual emissions

    What is a Carbon Footprint?

    A carbon footprint represents the total amount of carbon and energy produced by an activity or person. Businesses and individuals can calculate their footprint to see their environmental impact, and see which activities produce the most carbon.

    Drawing out a process map can help to highlight areas of waste and excess. A process map makes every step and component of a business or procedure clear and defined.

    For a product carbon footprint map you may include: 

    • Steps of your product production
    • Materials used
    • Energy required as well as water and heat
    • Transportation and travel distance

    If you are interested in calculating your carbon footprint, there are many different online calculators including this one from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Carbon Footprint Calculator | Climate Change | US EPA (15)

    Considering carbon emissions by country, in 2020 the United States ranked 2nd in the world for largest carbon footprint. Our yearly total reached 5.41 billion tons of carbon (16), including both industrial and individual outputs.

    For example, the inventor Saul Griffith gave a talk called Climate Change Recalculated sharing how he calculated his carbon footprint and later reduced it (17). He noted that like many Americans, he was using 18,000 watts a year.  Is that a lot?  Well, the global average energy budget for an individual is only 2,200 watts!

    Yes, you read that right: Many Americans use more than 8 times the individual global average for energy use. It is not always possible for everyone to make large energy changes of course - perhaps you commute by car and have no alternative, but the first step is being aware of your impact.

    It is also important to note that there is a vast difference in emissions from different socio-economic classes. In fact, it has been found that the  World's richest 1% cause double the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50% (18). Sadly this does mean climate change can be a political issue too. Quite incredible really! Superyachts don’t run on the latest hydrogen fuel….

    What is the Carbon Footprint of Tea?

    We have reviewed several activities in tea cultivation and production that contribute carbon. But what about the amount of carbon it takes to fill your tea cup?

    According to a study examining sustainability of the tea sector in Sri Lanka, a cup of tea can range from 200g CO2 to -6g CO2 per 8oz cup depending on carbon emissions and sequestration. For loose leaf teas it is closer to 20g CO2 per cup (11). And yes, you read that right: it is possible for a cup of tea to actually be carbon positive, that minus sign isn't a typo!

    Since there is a vast range, Matcha Alternatives is working to calculate our own impact. We will share more of our process and how we are working it out later on in future blog posts.

    Large trees lining a dirt road

    Trees serve as natural carbon sinks, one can sequester 48 lb of CO2 a year (19)

    How does a small business reduce its carbon footprint?

    With seemingly every activity producing carbon, how can we reverse the damage? Well, our world came equipped with a marvelous checks-and-balances system. While there are many sources of GHG emissions, there are also sinks that sequester harmful gases.  

    Examples of Natural Carbon Sinks (20):

    • Trees and plants: 1 tree sequesters as much as 40 lb CO2 a year, and 1 ton over a 30-year lifetime.
    • The ocean: The National Center for Environmental Information has seen a large increase of ocean carbon sequestration, since the Industrial Revolution. While reducing planetary warming, this increased sequestration acidifies the water, harming aquatic life (21). So while Earth’s systems are trying to compensate for human activity, it comes at a cost. 
    • Soil: The food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that soil sequesters 20 billion tons over a period of 25 years (22) 

    Unfortunately as we have described, these natural checks and balances are being overwhelmed by the vast quantities of carbon dioxide emissions humanity produces each year. These sinks are not infinite, due to all sorts of physics.

    So what can we do? We can help to reestablish sinks by supporting programs that reduce deforestation, and protect natural systems. This is where businesses have a chance to mitigate and offset their carbon footprint!

    1. Offset the remaining carbon emissions

    Mitigation is the first step, reducing emissions as much as possible before further action is taken. This requires evaluating the production process and identifying areas of excess. For small businesses, without the resources of large enterprises like Coca Cola, this process can be daunting. Mitigation and offsets will look vastly different depending on business size and availability of data and researchers.

    2. Offset the remaining carbon emissions

    Once a business reduces its footprint as much as possible, it needs to offset the rest to neutralize its footprint. There are lots of carbon offset programs available to businesses of all sizes, but scams abound. It's therefore essential to do some research and digging to ensure that carbon will actually be offset.

    Here are some resources to help you and fellow small businesses get started:

    Next Steps for MatchaAlternatives.com 

    While we are still working towards carbon neutrality, we have joined the #TeamTrees movement, a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation. Each Tea Bundle sold plants one tree with the ability to sequester 1 ton of carbon over its lifetime.
    In 2019 and 2020 we planted 75 trees, which should sequester 75 tons of carbon over time. Check out this page to learn more about our Ethical Tea Sourcing & Packaging

    Wind turbines in a hilly landscapeWind turbines are clean and sustainable energy

    Note From Luce

    Thank you for taking the time to read through this post!  While studying Environmental Science, it has been overwhelming at times to see the devastating effects of global warming, and the ENORMOUS changes that must be made. Personally I think it’s easy to feel powerless under leadership that does not recognize global warming as a real and threatening force. But the reality is that we are quickly approaching the 1.5 or 2 degree limit as we discussed earlier. 

    While every-day choices may seem impossibly small, on a global scale they can generate change. Here are some ways I manage my footprint:
    • Turning off lights when they are not used. Unplugging things I rarely use (even if they are off they are still using electricity!)
    • Taking short showers. Old showers use 5 gallons of water a minute, and a bath can use 36 gallons of water (26)
    • Using the dishwasher instead of handwashing. (If you have one available you can save 2-11 gallons of water) (26) For this point and the last remember water treatment and heating takes energy!
    • Support small and local business when possible, this not only tremendously reduces how far your food travels, but gives you fresher produce!
    • Choosing items that will last, and avoiding “fast fashion” that will end up in the landfill very soon.
    • Walking, biking, or carpooling whenever possible.
    What are some of your footprint self check-ins? Feel free to share them in the comments below. And of course, any questions you have about this entire post. :-)

    Thank you again for reading, for caring, and for taking action!

     

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    References & Further Reading

    Matcha Alternatives

    Everything You Need to Know About Tea

    Ethical Tea Sourcing & Packaging

     

    Research

    (1) Harmeet Kaur, CNN. “California Fire Is Now a 'Gigafire,' a Rare Designation for a Blaze That Burns at Least a Million Acres.” East Idaho News, 6 Oct. 2020, www.eastidahonews.com/2020/10/california-fire-is-now-a-gigafire-a-rare-designation-for-a-blaze-that-burns-at-least-a-million-acres/. 

    (2) “Overview of Greenhouse Gases.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Sept. 2020, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases. 

    (3) “Changes since the Industrial Revolution.” American Chemical Society, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/greenhousegases/industrialrevolution.html. 

    (4) “Too Little, Too Late? Carbon Emissions and the Point of No Return.” Yale Environment Review, 26 Mar. 2019, environment-review.yale.edu/too-little-too-late-carbon-emissions-and-point-no-return. 

    (5) Andester, Nikita. “Carbon Offsetting Companies Compared.” Ethical.net, 28 July 2019, ethical.net/climate-crisis/carbon-offsetting-companies-compared/. 

    (6) DeSilver, Drew. “Renewable Energy Is Growing Fast in the U.S., but Fossil Fuels Still Dominate.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/15/renewable-energy-is-growing-fast-in-the-u-s-but-fossil-fuels-still-dominate/. 

    (7) Dunbar, Brian. “Water Vapor Confirmed as Major Player in Climate Change.” NASA, NASA, www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/vapor_warming.html. 

    (8) “Overview of Greenhouse Gases.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Sept. 2020, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases. 

    (9) Beutgen, M., et al. “Scenario Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Darjeeling Tea.” The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-014-0840-0. 

    (10) “Climate Change & Pesticides.” Californians for Pesticide Reform, www.pesticidereform.org/climate-change/. 

    (11) Munasinghe, Mohan, et al. “Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts and Overall Sustainability of the Tea Sector in Sri Lanka.” Sustainable Production and Consumption, Elsevier, 26 Aug. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352550917300246?via=ihub. 

    (12) “2019 Global Tea Market Report: Strong Growth amid Rising Challenges.” Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, 10 Apr. 2019, www.teaandcoffee.net/feature/22259/2019-global-tea-market-report-strong-growth-amid-rising-challenges/. 

    (13) “Emissions Sources (2020).” Climate Central, 19 Feb. 2020, www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/emissions-sources-2020. 

    (14) Wijeratne, Thushari Lakmini. “Assessing and Reducing the Environmental Impact of Tea Cultivation.” Global Tea Science: Current Status and Future Needs, by V. S. Sharma, Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing, 2018, p. 473. 

    (15) Carbon Footprint Calculator | Climate Change | US EPA. 1 June 2015, www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/. 

    (16) “Each Country's Share of CO2 Emissions.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 16 July 2008, www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions. 
    Updated on Aug 12, 2020

    (17) Brand, --Stewart, and Saul Griffith. "Climate Change Recalculated." The Long Now Foundation, 16 Jan. 2009, longnow.org/seminars/02009/jan/16/climate-change-recalculated/.

    (18) Harvey, Fiona. World's Richest 1% Cause Double CO2 Emissions of Poorest 50%, Says Oxfam. 20 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/21/worlds-richest-1-cause-double-co2-emissions-of-poorest-50-says-oxfam?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other. 

    (19) “Could Global CO2 Levels Be Reduced by Planting Trees?” CO2 Meter, 21 Sept. 2020, www.co2meter.com/blogs/news/could-global-co2-levels-be-reduced-by-planting-trees. 

    (20) Thompson, Andrea. “What Is a Carbon Sink?” LiveScience, Purch, 21 Dec. 2012, www.livescience.com/32354-what-is-a-carbon-sink.html. 

    (21) “Global Ocean Absorbing More Carbon.” National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), 15 Mar. 2019, www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-ocean-absorbing-more-carbon.

    (22)“What Is Soil Carbon Sequestration.” Soil Carbon Sequestration | FAO SOILS PORTAL | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/soils-portal/soil-management/soil-carbon-sequestration/en/. 

    (23) "Climate Neutral Certified: How It Works." Climate Neutral, www.climateneutral.org/how-it-works.

    (24) Field, Bethany, and Craig Simmons. "Product Carbon Footprinting for Beginners Guidance for Smaller Businesses on Tackling the Carbon Footprint Challenge." BSI.

    (25) "Standards & Methodologies." American Carbon Registry, americancarbonregistry.org/carbon-accounting/standards-methodologies.

    (26)  Howard Perlman, USGS, and USGS Scott Young. “Per Capita Water Use: How Much Water Do You Use in Your Home?” Per Capita Water Use: How Much Water Do You Use at Home? USGS Water Science School, water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-percapita.php. 

     

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