Sustainability

Compliant rebels

Earlier this year, Nc’nean became the UK’s first net-zero-certified whisky distillery. Now the team aim to inspire others to go beyond mere compliance with environmental rules and set an example for the rest of Scotland in the fight against climate change
By Malcolm Triggs
Nc'Nean Distillery from above
Nc'Nean Distillery from above
Later this year, the city of Glasgow will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). On the one hand, it’s a remarkable opportunity for the UK to position itself as the de facto leader in what some see as our last chance to avoid environmental apocalypse, building on its legacy as the first nation in the world to introduce long-term, legally binding legislation which has since become the model for other states. On the other, it’s a remarkable contradiction. Both the UK and the Scottish governments are under considerable pressure to end what environmental campaigners consider to be entirely indefensible plans to approve new oil and gas fields in the North Sea.

In short, the UK is trying to reconcile efforts to sustain capitalist growth with seriously ambitious targets enshrined in law requiring the UK to bring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050. Scotland’s position is more precarious still; it’s committed to achieving net-zero status by 2045, five years before the rest of the UK. And of course, the ageing cash cow that is North Sea oil grazes primarily on Scottish soil.
Up close with the stills

The debate doesn’t just concern the energy sector. Adopting a novel sector-by-sector approach, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has been instrumental in supporting many of Scotland’s key industrial sectors to not just comply with environmental sustainability legislation, but to go beyond such compliance and ultimately reap economic and social benefits in doing so. Incidentally, SEPA’s first sector plan published as part of its One Planet Prosperity regulatory strategy was for the Scotch whisky sector. Before delving deeper, though, it’s worth taking a step back and getting to grips with what ‘net zero’ actually means when used in the context of environmental sustainability.

Carbon neutrality is achieved when carbon dioxide emissions are entirely offset or sequestered, without necessarily taking steps to reduce emissions in the first place. Although there’s no agreed definition of the term ‘net zero’, as a concept it’s generally understood to refer to the reduction of GHGs (note, not just carbon dioxide, although this is the most abundant) to a net total of zero. The ‘net’ part refers to the fact that in order to achieve ‘zero’ emissions, some may still need to be offset or sequestered – hence, net zero. In its 2020–21 environmental sustainability report, Nc’nean, the UK’s first net-zero-certified whisky distillery, says that the spirit of net zero is to achieve significant reductions in emissions in addition to offsetting or sequestering, which is exactly what it is doing.
Annabel Thomas with Nc’nean’s Organic Single Malt

Nc’nean’s interpretation of net zero in the absence of a formal definition, and its subsequent approach towards achieving its net-zero status, are worthy models for the Scotch whisky sector at large. Its founder and CEO, Annabel Thomas, says, “One of the observations I had when I was thinking about starting Nc’nean was that there didn’t seem to be enough of a focus on sustainability in the rest of the sector at the time. That felt wrong to me, in particular because so much of the sector is situated in and reliant on Scotland’s beautiful, natural habitats and uses agricultural products very closely connected to that land.”
Bringing nature into the distillery

As a new-build distillery, Nc’nean had the distinct advantage of being able to design both its processes and its brand around sustainability, and not the other way round. Doing so, however, has required no small amount of upfront investment. In common with all other distilleries, its primary source of GHG emissions is the generation of heat for mashing and distillation. To this end, Nc’nean is reliant on a biomass boiler which burns wood harvested from a commercial forest two miles from the distillery. When wood is burned, it releases carbon dioxide that has already been removed from the atmosphere during the tree’s life, and so it doesn’t count towards the distillery’s carbon footprint. Trees which are felled are replanted, thus absorbing more carbon dioxide. What little electricity the distillery still needs is sourced from a 100 per cent renewable energy supplier, while any remaining emissions (for example, running a tractor to collect wood harvested for the biomass boiler) are offset through the purchase of carbon removal credits.

It’s important to note that Nc’nean’s net-zero certification relates only to its on-site operations, not its supply chain. The team are transparent about this, highlighting in their sustainability report that emissions occurring as a result of the cultivation, manufacture and transport of all raw materials and packaging, as well as staff travel and site waste, are offset through the purchase of carbon removal credits. Thus, their supply chain is carbon neutral, but not net zero – at least not yet.

Of course, Annabel and her team recognise that their approach towards achieving net zero isn’t an off-the-shelf solution for the rest of the sector. While a biomass boiler works for them by virtue of their proximity to a commercial forest, it’s not a viable solution for, say, an Orcadian distillery, the archipelago being largely treeless.

Similarly, larger producers couldn’t necessarily all commit to sourcing organic barley for the full production of their whisky for the simple fact that there likely isn’t enough organic barley currently being produced in the world. There’s also a significant amount of work needed to make sustainable technologies commercially viable options in the long run, particularly for some of the bigger producers. That said, Annabel reckons there is more that other, larger producers could viably be doing elsewhere, particularly within supply chains. “I think it’s wrong that the big guys haven’t made more progress on packaging. Even just light-weight bottles, taking out outer packaging, making sure that outer packaging is optional and made of 100 per cent recycled materials. In fact, even doing their carbon footprint. Every distillery in Scotland should be able to publish their carbon footprint.”

Despite making for thoroughly sober reading, the UN’s most recent climate change report proclaims that a climate catastrophe can be averted if the world acts fact. The ‘race’ to net zero therefore needs to be exactly that. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. No individual, far less an established business, can wake up in the morning and simply declare that they are ‘sustainable’. What’s needed is sector-wide acknowledgement of the climate crisis, and of how all businesses therein are necessarily running the race.
Lorna Davidson at the distillery

The whisky sector already has much to be proud of, particularly in the past few years. It’s consistently one of the most environmentally compliant sectors which SEPA regulates – which the organisation’s Scotch whisky lead, Graeme Henderson, puts down to pride. “Environmental compliance gets an equal weighting to everything else,” he says. “It’s non-negotiable to them. They put the effort in and treat it seriously. They also treat it as a badge of honour. Theirs is a high-end product from a pristine environment.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a product of Scotland that has a more symbiotic relationship with its environment than whisky – and yet no producer can very well boast of the fact unless it’s proactively making efforts to protect that environment. Many already are, and are working towards the Scotch Whisky Association’s target of achieving net zero by 2040 – five years ahead of Scotland, and 10 ahead of the rest of the UK.
Simon Hewitt rolling barrels

This puts Nc’nean a whopping two decades ahead of schedule – and what’s even more surprising is that, despite receiving invaluable support from the likes of SEPA and the industry leaders behind their biomass boiler and recycled packaging, the rest came from the same grassroots ingenuity upon which the distillery was built. With a passion for all things sustainable, visitor manager Amy Stammers doubles up as the distillery’s head of sustainability during the off-season, and was in fact instrumental in putting its carbon footprint together – the first step towards becoming certified as net zero. Annabel even cites a WhatsApp group of start-up leaders similarly committed to sustainability as being a significant source of support. They are self-styled quiet rebels, ultimately showing the rest of the Scotch whisky sector what is possible when it goes beyond mere compliance.
Up close with the whisky's grain

“At the end of the day, we’re a tiny distillery,” says Annabel. “Us getting to net zero is great, but in terms of the worldwide climate crisis we’re facing, it’s not as good as the whole sector getting there. It’d be awesome if we could have an even bigger impact by accelerating the rate of change in the rest of the Scotch whisky sector. Even if people don’t do exactly what we’ve done, it’s about encouraging them to get on this journey.”
Nc'Nean's Organic Single Malt