Coffee Culture and Climate Change

Climate change can be difficult to wrap your head around. It is in one hand abstract and hard to comprehend something so fundamental a colossal. We as humans have difficulty envisioning things larger that our own experiences. It’s not our fault, it’s just how we’re built.

Unfortunately, our inability to see the big picture doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I live in England and it’s been a decade since I’ve seen a snow like the ones I saw as a kid. Demonstrable things in front of us are one of the best indicators of the health of our changing planet, and one thing that’s with many of us every day is coffee.

It’s estimated that 1.4 billion cups of coffee are made every day, easily making it one the most popular drinks on the planet. 400 million cups of coffee are drunk in the US every day, while the Finns drink the most coffee per capita, almost 11 kilograms per year by some estimates. For many of us, myself included, it seems coffee is an intimate part of our lives.

But our morning brew is under threat. Much of the world’s coffee is produced in the so called ‘Coffee Belt’, an area that can roughly be described to include land 30° North and 30° South of the Equator. This includes a hugely diverse range of countries from Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, to Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Yemen, to name just a few.

Despite its somewhat misleading name, 70% of the world coffee comes courtesy of one particular plant Coffea arabica or Arabic Coffee. This Coffee plant typically thrives in temperature of 64F — 70F (18C — 21C). While this moderate temperature is the optimum, it can survive temperatures as high as 73F (24C), though not for significant periods of time.

The real damage though comes once we hit 86F (30C). At this stage, the growth of the planet is stunted, it’s leaves begin to yellow and the plants themselves will struggle to survive or die outright. This, combined with insects and fungal infections that thrive in rising temperatures, puts coffee plants under real threat. Now let us look at the Paris Agreement. In summary, this was a gathering of world leaders on issues of climate change where a target of 34.7F — 35.6F (1.5C — 2C) above pre-industrial levels by 2050 was agreed.

This is an ambitious goal, but it really is the best-case scenario. But for Coffea arabica and for coffee lovers around the world, it could spell disaster. Remember that optimum temperature of 64F — 70F (18C — 21C)? While 73.4F (23C) would not outright destroy the plant, it would lead to significantly less productivity and an overall decrease in the viability of coffee as a cash crop. And that viability as a cash crop may be the deciding factor for the future of coffee. 

An often-overlooked factor of climate change is that it will affect countries with a lower GDP, the so called ‘third world’, far more than those of us in the ‘developed world’. On top of that, countries closer to the equator, where there is less variation in overall yearly temperature, will feel the rising temperatures of climate change far more acutely.

These countries are also some of the world’s top coffee produces and it is those stable yearly temperatures that allow them to grow coffee in the first place. As a crop, coffee is vital to the economies of these nations as they develop and emerge from the quagmire of colonialism. Coffee is not simply a drink to them, but, in some cases, the lifeblood of their economies.

But the emissions of high GDP, ‘developed’ countries half a world away will negatively affect the climate of these nations, which, in turn, will lead to a decrease in coffee production. In the worse-case scenario, coffee is no longer viable in these regions and so is abandoned for easier to cultivate cash crops.

What then is the solution? There is no singular answer. Diversifying the coffee plants themselves will certainly help. Many farmers are now looking into gene modification and selective breeding with wild coffee plants to produce plants that are more heat tolerate.

This is only a temporary fix though. The real answer lies in fighting climate change. Without this step, coffee will become prohibitively expensive, a luxury of the rich, before finally disappearing, and a six-hundred-year love affair will come to an end.

So next time you visit your local coffee shop or café, bring a reusable cup and maybe then we can all keep enjoying coffee for the centuries to come.

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