Will Travel for Coffee: Sustainability in Global Coffee Travel

By Erika Koss

In April 2020, something unique happened when, for the first time, I saw Mount Kenya from Nairobi!

Certainly, I wasn’t the only one, as the sighting was so rare that even NPR covered the story. Many of us younger residents of Nairobi had never been able to view the peaks of Africa’s second largest mountain from Kenya’s capital city, notoriously known for its pollution, traffic, and noise. But after a month of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, international travel restrictions and limitations on travel in and out of Nairobi, the Mount Kenya sighting hinted at the possibility of one silver lining from Covid-19 constraints: Mother Earth could breathe again.

Carbon Emissions & Transportation

That fossil fuels and greenhouse gases are suffocating Earth’s atmosphere is now a decades-long debate about solutions to climate change, often centered on the reduction of carbon emissions.

While carbon is essential for human, animal, and plant life on Earth, when carbon and oxygen atoms bond, they form carbon dioxide (CO2), a gaseous compound. This greenhouse gas gets easily trapped and absorbed in the layer of Earth’s atmosphere closest to us, called the troposphere, and then emits back to us. This cycle is among the greatest contributors to global climate change, perniciously affecting all life forms on Earth, and is “embedded in the very fabric of contemporary society,” according to Dr. Kate Ervine in her 2018 book titled Carbon.

Since it can be hard to imagine an invisible chemical element such as carbon, it may help to consider tangible effects, as demonstrated by the Mount Kenya example. At least 14% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation – both industrial and individual travel.

In my SCA Sustainability Foundation course, I seek to link the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental, for my students. One example I give pertains to coffee travel, since in the coffee world, we all travel for competitions, conferences, trade shows, festivals, origin trips, or even just for fun, to visit famous coffee shops in other places than where we live. As much as I love to travel, as time passes and climate change gets worse, I question how much of this travel is necessary, and if the negative impacts on our earth outweigh the benefits.

Inspiring Others: 2018 World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska

I had been pondering this for quite some time, when Agnieszka Rojewska, the 2018 World Barista Champion, enrolled in my Sustainability courses. She wanted to learn more about the link between environmental and social sustainability. She told me that in her home country of Poland, it is often said that if you want to see change, you have to start from your own garden. So, for her Intermediate level course final project, she decided to do just that and use herself as a case study and analyze her own carbon footprint.

After winning the WBC, Aga traveled more than any other year of her life. We decided that she would focus on one year of her air travel from June 2018 to June 2019. To calculate the carbon footprint of those travels, she used an online calculator that she discovered was among the most accurate, since it can even include transfer cities. From June 2018 till June 2019, Aga visited 28 different countries on 35 trips, leading to a total of 154 flights taken.

Together, all these flights resulted in an estimated carbon footprint of 194,52 metric tons of CO2 for her air travel alone, a number that doesn’t include trains, cars, taxis, or other modes of travel when she arrived to each destination or while she was there. To put this number in perspective, Aga compared it with the average yearly footprint of the citizens of from our classmates’ home countries. She learned that 194,52 metric tons is more than the yearly average of the total carbon footprint for 13 Canadians, 13 Americans, 22 Poles, 26 South Africans, 54 Mexicans, 102 Indonesians, and 589 Kenyans.

Aga’s presentation in the SCA Sustainability Intermediate class included some inspiring words for us all: “in such a fast developing world, which offers a lot of convenient solutions, we often choose comfort without thinking twice about the consequences of our choices. Traveling is a good example of that.  Air travel is part of our work, passion, everyday life, and those with access to it are not very willing to give it up. We don’t have to, but I believe that the number one thing to more sustainable travel is to carefully plan your trips. Join few trips into one longer trip. Travelers can also rank some of the trips and set priorities.” She also added that other actions such as producing less waste by bringing your own reusable water bottle, eating vegetarian options on planes rather than meat, or charging your phone before your flight, all actions that decrease carbon emissions during travel.

In her final analysis, Aga realized that she could have meaningful impact on environmental sustainability by spending more time in the future to plan her travel and choose more sustainable behaviors. In doing so, Aga says, sustainability is not just a word that I hear a lot during conferences but is an action that can lead us beyond just awareness and knowledge.” She told me that she hopes her project can provide others with some tools or guidelines how to put thinking into doing.”

Winston Thomas of South Africa

That is exactly what happened after Aga’s presentation in class, when her classmates wanted to analyze their travel, too. Winston Thomas, 3-time winner of the South Africa Barista Competition, was inspired to catalogue a national trip he took as part of the promotion for winning the 2018 competition: six different cafes in four South African cities hosted Winston, each for a day over the course of a week. The goal was to make world class competition coffee available to wider communities, so in each city, his itinerary included giving a talk, working on the bar, and providing trainings.

His flights included Cape Town to King Shaka (Durban), King Shaka (Durban) to Lanseria (Johannesburg), and Tambo (Johannesburg) back to Cape Town. Bus trips included Park Station (Johannesburg) to Bloemfontein and Bloemfontein to Centurion. Cars and Uber were used to travel from airports to cafes and back. This single one-week trip resulted in a carbon footprint of 0.53 metric tons of CO2, while the average total carbon footprint in South Africa, per person for a year, is less than 9 metric tons.

As a freelance coffee professional and AST for the Specialty Coffee Association, Winston looks back as this trip as a great experience for him and the South African coffee community. But analyzing the carbon footprint of the travel led him to recognize that with more planning and time, it might have been better to do the complete trip by car. That would have saved on carbon emissions and cost, although it would have taken a lot more travel time and energy.” Winston told me that the carbon exercise challenged him to be more conscious of the three pillars of sustainability at all times. In the trip, I focused on the social and economic elements, but all this to the detriment of environment. While an individual’s carbon footprint cannot be completely erased, it is something that, with more thought and planning, can be reduced.”

Mikael Jasin of Indonesia

A similar lesson was learned by Mikael Jasin, Indonesia’s National Barista Champion in 2019 and 2020, when he was also inspired to calculate his carbon footprint for an origin trip in his home country of Indonesia in July 2020.  Despite the global pandemic, he had to conduct the origin trip as an integral part of his Indonesian coffee business. Visiting seven cities and traveling 4,000 km in Indonesia over the course of 24 days, Mikael’s carbon footprint was 0.92 metric (for 2 people) compared to 2.77 metric tons if he and his travel companion were to fly. His motive to take this trip mostly by car was based on Covid-19 restrictions and to limit his physical interactions with others. But after using the carbon calculator inspired by Aga’s class presentation, he realized that in doing so, he also limited his carbon footprint. By taking a car rather than planes, he emitted almost 35% less carbon.

Mikael was surprised to learn this, noting that planning ahead in the future would be one way to reduce his carbon footprint through his essential business travel. He shared that “it was very easy to calculate his carbon footprint through the calculator and it’s pretty detailed, down to the make and year of your car.” Doing so helped Mikael realize one concrete way our individual choices can make a difference.

The Carbon Inequality Era

In her project, Aga was also mindful of inequalities that exist within different forms of travel. She learned that globally, only 2-3% of people ever take an international flight, and only 10% of the world’s population has ever taken a domestic flight. While some of these inequities relate to economic limitations, others may pertain to gender, since in some countries, women cannot freely travel. Other individuals have challenges even to obtain passports or visas. As the specialty coffee community rethinks future barista championships, we might consider ways to include the farmers who produce the coffee, even as Aga reflected that those who produced her winning coffee from Ethiopia have never left their country.

Such inequities are highlighted from a different perspective in new report by researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam International, which demonstrates that from 1990 to 2015, annual global carbon emissions grew by 60%, or double the amount of cumulative emissions.  Most of these emissions come from the Global North, leading to an increasingly negative climate impacts for the Global South. As this September 2018 data analyzes, the richest 1% globally are responsibility for more than double the carbon emissions of the poorest half of humanity (page 8), leading the report to identify our current time as the Carbon Inequality Era.

Concluding Thoughts

Dr. Ervine’s book Carbon seeks to demystify the paradox regarding our need for carbon and its potential for our destruction. She highlights that our current “fossil-fueled and carbon intensive industrial capitalism are rooted in powerful notions of the 'good life’ — modernity, linear progress, security, and comfort” (page 4). Certainly, travel is part of this narrative for those who can afford it.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it may be that some travel is unnecessary, some meetings can be video calls, and more business can be conducted through email. Addressing and improving sustainability will do more than allowing forgotten images such as the view of Mt. Kenya from Nairobi. Our specialty coffee community might consider if, even after all COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted, the collective impact of the travel required, encouraged, or desired to succeed in this industry might be working against long-term sustainability both for the seeds and human actors who make coffee possible.

Sources & Recommended Further Reading

Ervine, Kate. 2018 Carbon. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Kartha, S., Kemp-Benedict, E., Ghosh, E., Nazareth, A. and Gore, T. (2020). The Carbon Inequality Era: An assessment of the global distribution of consumption emissions among individuals from 1990 to 2015 and beyond. Joint Research Report. Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam International.

About the Author

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Erika Koss now lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she is a Research Associate at the University of Nairobi. In 2018, she launched “A World in Your Cup” out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she is also a PhD candidate in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University. Erika’s research centers on gender equity, sustainability, and resilience in the global coffee trade, particularly in East Africa. A former barista and Re:Co fellow, Erika is also a SCA-certified AST for Introduction to Coffee and the Sustainability Coffee Skills programs. Other career highlights include working at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC; the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California; and as an assistant dean at Northeastern University. She has taught literature, writing, and politics at several universities. She holds a B.S. from The Master’s College; an M.A. in English literature from San Diego State University; and an M.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University. She is a regular contributor to several coffee magazines and is working on her first book. Read more on her website www.AWorldinYourCup, or follow her on Instagram @aworldinyourcup.