Opinion: How green is my glen?

Opinion: How green is my glen?

Reducing emissions beyond the distillery gate

Thoughts from... | 09 Dec 2022 | Issue 188 | By Chris Middleton

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In recent decades many distilleries have made significant strides in sustainable practices, especially in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE, primarily carbon dioxide, CO2), achieved by converting to biomass, solar, and wind power, as well as progress in water recycling, improved land management, and waste mitigation – all credit to the industry’s ingenuity and enterprise. The exception is carbon capture during the biochemical process of fermentation, where ethanol’s byproduct is carbon dioxide and where only a handful employ capture technologies. Every litre of ethanol generates more than 750 grams of CO2 during fermentation, with a medium-sized malt distillery outputting 3 million litres of pure alcohol per annum producing about 2,250 tonnes of GHGE.
Outside the distillery’s small spatial footprint, whisky and spirits companies have been selective in declaring CO2’s contribution to their total whisky business. The greatest amount of GHGE occurs outside the distillery. This problem is not the exclusive realm of distilling companies – all consumer goods have similar CO2 overhangs from packaging and transport to sales and marketing – nor is Scotland a laggard in conservation and sustainability, especially with energy. Scotland led the industrial revolution, pioneering new power sources: pit coal, then shale oil, deep-sea oil drilling, renewables in hydro, tide, wave, solar, wind and biofuels. However, contributing to whisky’s GHGE ledger are dry goods, transport, marketing and the malting of barley.
Malting: More than 50 per cent of Scotch barley (800,000 tonnes) is malted, expending energy on transport, germination and kilning. Cartage costs from farm to maltster and distillery represent 60 per cent of the malt cost, whereas kilning uses around 72 per cent of the malting energy. Age and plant type, energy source, malt specifications, and volumes are all variables for each malting facility. However, indicative numbers are that for every tonne of malt, 0.40 to 0.26 tonnes of CO2 are generated.
Glass: Liquid whisky require bottles to take the product from a distillery through the global distribution chain to the consumer for consumption. Assiduous analysis by Dr Richard Smart in 2019 reported on the worldwide wine industry that 68 per cent of the GHGE is due to the wine bottle, the balance being 15 per cent for grape-growing and 17 per cent for wine-making. Where whisky lacks wine’s terroir, there are greater transporting demands for grain, higher manufacturing costs (malting, distilling), and usually weightier bottles, often a third heavier. Even cultivation benchmarks have a kilo of malt producing 0.56 to 1.3 kilos of CO2, compared to grapes at 0.4 kilos. A 2019 US study reported manufacturing a bottle of whisky produces 6.5 lbs or 3 kilos of CO2, with European studies calculating the glass bottle alone yields 1.0 to 1.5 kilos of CO2.
Transport and travel: The bulk of the components to manufacture whisky, such as grain and casks, necessitate regional or transnational movements before packaging and selling costs. Second-use cask wood imported from America or Europe is first logged, cut, trucked, coopered and sent to an originating bourbon distillery or wine bodega. Bottles, some made in different continents, are shipped before bottling, filled with whisky and trucked to port for international shipping, before train and truck from warehouses to the store or bar, then ultimately to the consumer. An often-overlooked and major contributor to GHGE is business travel. Medium to large distilleries exporting to overseas markets can rack up millions of air kilometres a year where a return premium economy flight, Heathrow to JFK, generates 3 metric tonnes of CO2. The hundreds or thousands of flights yearly for sales meetings, market and distributor reviews, conventions and whisky shows, ambassador events, executive conferences, supplier and purchasing visits, production assessments and media and marketing projects generate hundreds of tonnes of GHGE.
The glen might be getting greener. Now, CO2 reductions are sought beyond the distillery.
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