By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Distillers must run, not walk down the road to net zero

Distillers are responding to the climate crisis, but is it too little, too late?
Back in issue #167 (April 2020) I reported on the progress made toward the sustainability targets of the Scotch whisky industry. At the time, there was a real feeling that, finally, the public was beginning to properly focus on green issues and hold big business, the media and policy makers to account. Just as it seemed environmentalism had reached the top of the policy agenda, a pandemic began.

Now, 18 months later, it is becoming clear that an ecological disaster has run parallel to the public health crisis. Though emissions dropped significantly during lockdowns, they have already begun to bounce back to 2019 levels. What’s more, billions of single-use plastics such as masks, gloves, aprons and bottles of sanitiser, at the time so vital in the effort to protect lives and supress the virus, have found their way to landfill and, with unnerving frequency, our oceans.

Today, a mind-numbing 129 billion face masks are being used and discarded globally each month. According to National Geographic, the plastic waste accumulating in Earth’s oceans is forecast to triple in the next 20 years, and even if every single corporate pledge to use recycled plastics were kept, that final figure would only reduce by seven per cent. Worryingly, the only 2020 sustainability targets missed by the Scotch whisky industry, as reported by the SWA, all related to packaging: just 37 per cent of product packaging is made from recycled materials, six per cent remains entirely unrecyclable, and overall packaging weight has actually increased since monitoring began.

Other ‘off-site’ areas of the business, such as flights for sales meetings and events, international shipping, and malting, continue to prove particularly challenging; even the SWA does not envision the barley supply chain reaching net zero until 2045.

Things do indeed look bad, but it’s not all doom and gloom. On the flip side, the SWA’s ambitious 2040 targets have been embraced wholeheartedly by an industry in which eco-credentials are swiftly becoming as much a point of pride as the whisky. As soon as 2022, we can expect all SWA members to take a step toward greater transparency by publishing their annual carbon footprints, hopefully leading to greater accountability. Furthermore, projects such as Glenfiddich’s ‘powered by whisky’ lorries have answered questions regarding the future of spirits logistics for which there was no public data even a year ago, and the phasing out of fossil fuels for production is progressing apace.

In this vein, new research published in July by Heriot-Watt University, funded by the UK government’s Greener Distilleries scheme, mapped a new road to net zero which aims to help distillers identify the best combination of renewable energy generation methods, alongside both electrical and heat-storage systems, to suit their sites. Meanwhile, the development of a zero-carbon (albeit, rum) distillery in Cornwall, adjacent to what will be the UK’s first geothermal power plant, looks likely to become reality. In January, funding was awarded for a feasibility study on incorporating hydrogen combustion technology at Bruichladdich, and just a few weeks ago Glenmorangie completed the return of 20,000 native oysters to the Dornoch Firth as part of the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), in just one example of a distiller looking beyond its own grounds and supply chain to exert a positive influence on the surrounding landscape. It’s a good start. Along with growing focus on responsible peat use and white oak sustainability, projects like DEEP are hopefully a sign of a wider trend toward environmental custodianship beyond distiller-owned land.

And so, though whisky may be just a small fish in a worryingly polluted pond, drinkers can at least be assured that whisky makers really are doing their fair share to solve the problems which, without swift action, will soon impact our lives in ways that make the last 18 months look like little more than a minor inconvenience. Distillers are certainly making progress down the road to net zero, but, for all our sakes, let’s just hope they’re running not walking.