The carbon cost of wine

by | Apr 24, 2020 | Article

With the recent ban on wine exports during the COVID-19 lockdown, the industry reflects on its biggest carbon footprint culprit – which has less to do with wine production, and more to do with packaging and transport. How do we keep the wine industry environmentally responsible?

In a Tweet, Australian winemaker Dudley Brown (@TheWineRules1) challenged wine reviewers on social media to include the weight of an empty wine bottle.

Sustainability is today’s buzz word, but it’s a complex issue. The world is transitioning into a low carbon economy and this is playing out in many of our key export markets, including the wine sector.

There’s been a lot of talk about the carbon footprint of transporting wine. Glass bottles and their transportation are the two biggest contributors to wine’s carbon footprint.

Yet, South Africa exported a total of 320 million litres of wine in 2019 of which 145 million litres were packaged wine. While there’s been a drive towards lighter bottles, the industry is still very much dependent on transportation and export to ensure its viability.

Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s most authoritative voices in wine, says the major task is to replace glass bottles and help reduce transport costs. In an opinion column featured in The Financial Times in February, Jancis urges people not to “be snobbish about wines in cans,” and that glass bottles have a “far higher carbon footprint than cans.”

In a Tweet, Australian winemaker Dudley Brown (@TheWineRules1) challenged wine reviewers on social media to include the weight of an empty wine bottle (by means of a scale) in order to make consumers aware and conscious of the carbon cost of transporting wine in glass bottles.

Heavier glass, more prestige

Hein Koegelenberg, CEO of La Motte, and a frequent exporter to markets like China, says Chinese consumers prefer heavy glass. “The heavier the glass, the more expensive and prestigious the wine.”

“In Europe, consumers prefer lighter bottles. But unfortunately, in most underdeveloped markets that we export to, consumers still want to feel the weight of a heavy glass bottle of wine,” says Hein.

The current technical limit of 330 g for 750 ml still wine bottles saves 15% of the total carbon footprint compared to standard 500 g bottles, including savings on transport emissions. Conversely, a premium 750 g bottle can increase the carbon footprint by 20%.

Hein says the international wine industry must adapt quicker, and focus on new consumer packaging trends like sustainability. “Worldwide, we’re dealing with a new kind of consumer. The millennial buyer is environmentally conscious and far more concerned about the environment and protecting what we have.”

“This is why wine in cans have shown such incredible growth lately. I think our younger generation is far less snobbish when it comes to wine. We [the collective South African wine industry] must make the entire wine experience less snooty.”

Hein believes the industry needs to measure and monitor its carbon footprint. “It’s something we can market to more conscious consumers.”

The carbon cost of glass

But what is the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine? According to Grupo ARCE – a company with expertise in calculating emissions in the food sector – the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine, at 1.2144 kg of CO2, includes a 39% contribution from the glass bottle alone.

Know the Flow calculated the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine at around 1.28 kg CO2. –equivalent to driving 4.8 km in a Honda Accord.

Studies in Australia and elsewhere have shown that transport and glass packaging account for as much as 68% of the Australian wine industry’s carbon footprint. Contributions from grape growing and winemaking are relatively minor, accounting for 15% and 17% respectively.

Confronting Climate Change (CCC).

The carbon calculator

The 2019 Confronting Climate Change (CCC) benchmark report was established to help the South African fruit and wine industries improve their understanding of the use of fossil fuel-based resources and to reduce emissions over time. The CCC report uses combined data from the 2011-2018 seasons to provide an industry-specific CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) benchmark. It made several key findings about carbon emissions at farm, winery and distribution level.

At farm level, the greatest contributors to the overall carbon emissions are electricity, diesel and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. The report also confirms that in terms of packaging CO2e emissions, glass is by far the biggest contributor, making up more than 80% of total emissions and averaging 0.56 kg glass per litre of white wine and 0.67 kg glass per litre of red wine.

Anél Blignaut, project manager at CCC, says its online carbon footprint calculator is the only one of its kind in South Africa, designed specifically for the South African fruit and wine industries. The carbon footprint calculator can help growers identify emission hotspots and understand where to focus their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

Anél says wineries’ ‘carbon hotspots’ relate to the use of virgin packaging material, particularly glass and corrugated cardboard boxes. “These activities form most of the carbon emissions throughout the supply chain and should therefore be targeted as a priority area for improved efficiencies and alternative product usage.”

“Monitoring and managing your carbon footprint with the aim to reduce emissions is not just the right thing to do in terms of climate change, but it also makes business sense.”

A big advantage of the CCC initiative is that it allows farmers to benchmark themselves against one another. “Farmers are given access to results and data from other farms in their region, yet the data remains anonymous.”

But the management principle of ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ applies. CCC enables wineries to undertake accurate measurement of their energy use and carbon emissions intensity. “Such measurements are generally accepted as a prerequisite for the effective management of greater resource-use efficiency, reduced emissions and the long-term sustainability of business activities and operations.”

The information provided in a carbon footprint report for an individual producer is extremely valuable in identifying the hotspots in their business and to indicate where they should focus their efforts to reduce not only carbon emissions, but also to minimise input costs and ensure greater resource-efficiency.

“In addition, you tick several market access boxes in terms of compliance with environmental assurance schemes,” Anél concludes.

Confronting Climate Change (CCC).

Emission culprits in the vineyard and cellar

If we look at the South African wine industry and specifically the data that was submitted by South African producers, electricity consumption for the pumping of water is the largest source of farm-level carbon emissions. “Since the South African grid-supplied electricity is predominantly coal-based, carbon emissions are both intensive in production and use,” says Anél.

The most significant factors determining energy requirements are the irrigation intensity of the crop and the pumping ‘head’ of the farm. The second biggest emitter at farm level is the usage of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilisers. On the use side, the inefficient or over-application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser results in large amounts of nitrous oxide emission.

One tonne of nitrous oxide is equivalent to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. In addition, the price of these inputs will continue to rise as fuel prices go up, increasing the risk of increased input costs at farm level.

The more natural products are often multi-beneficial in that they increase soil health, which does not only lessen the requirement of synthetic additions, but also improves water retention and productivity. Commodity groups that require more intensive fertiliser programmes will have higher carbon emissions than those that utilise more conservative and natural soil enhancement practices.

Diesel usage is the third largest emissions source, due to a variety of vehicles and equipment used for spraying, harvesting, soil preparation, transportation and other farming activities.

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