What is the carbon footprint of drinking alcohol, and how can we reduce it?

Food miles for fruit and vegetables are widely discussed, but few people have the same perception of alcohol miles. Alcoholic drinks consumed in Britain have been calculated to be equivalent to 1.5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions, through growing crops, preparing the product, packaging, transporting, cooling and consuming.

The types of alcoholic products we choose has significantly increased the carbon footprint of our drinking habits over time. Below are several ways of reducing the carbon footprint of consuming alcohol.

1) Drink it British-style…Enjoy it at room-temperature.

Almost 50% of the carbon footprint from beer-drinking is associated with storing and serving your drink in a pub or at home.

In 1960, 99% of beer drank in Britain was ale, which is served at room (or cellar) temperature. Since then, lager has become increasingly common, and now stands at almost 75% of the British market. Lagers, and increasingly, ciders, are served ice cold. The shift from cellar-temperature ales to ice-cold lagers, ciders and white wines has had a huge impact on the energy consumption of pubs and restaurants, but also increased the energy consumption at home. Beer fridges are now becoming a more normal commodity.

For wine, choose red wine over white wine during summer, and choose a white wine when the weather is cold enough to chill it naturally. (Currently, Britons are mostly drinking white and rose wine that required chilling prior to drinking, and only 43% of all wine sold is red.) This requirement to refrigerate wine accounts for 23% of wine’s carbon footprint in the UK.

2) Drink local brews. I don’t mean craft. I mean local.

In some circles, British drinking is undergoing a major shift away from the mega-corporations of the brewing world. In 1980, there were 191 breweries across the UK. Since then, there has been a huge increase in the number of micro-breweries, with the total now standing at 1285 UK breweries, the vast majority being very small. (This is nowhere near the 1900s peak of 6447 breweries.)

This shift allows people to choose local beers, instead of the mass-produced lagers available across the world. Over 20% of an average beer’s carbon footprint is associated with transport, so preferencing local beers over beers from further away will help to reduce the overall carbon footprint.

Of course CO2e emissions per litre brewed will vary between breweries. A larger brewing company can buy heat exchange technology and other energy saving devices, and the largest UK breweries report 0.1-0.15 kg CO2e/litre of product from the factory floor (not including the transport to consumers). Smaller breweries are unlikely to be this efficient, with up to 3 times more energy used per litre. The larger breweries, however, have complex distribution and production networks, and so transport-related emissions could outweigh the benefits of efficiencies. Beer is heavy, and so transport will quickly increase the carbon footprint per litre.

Therefore, buying beer that is brewed locally, whether from a large efficient brewery or a smaller outlet, will make a big carbon saving.

To understand how my local breweries distribute their products, I booked on to a number of brewery tours. In Cardiff, we have a great selection of local micro-breweries, plus Brains, a major local brewer located immediately next to the Central train station. Brains have begun creating their own craft beers, delivered these on foot to five pubs in the city centre. Understanding where the brewery tap pubs are also reduces the emissions from transport.

It is also possible to reduce the transport emissions greatly by brewing your own beer. I previously calculated the emissions from my housemate’s homebrew at 0.19 kg CO2e/pint, or 0.33 kg CO2e/litre. Whilst this is higher than the large breweries, the heat produced by the brewing process was used to heat our house, and so not entirely wasted, plus there were no transport emissions for the finished product.

To find pubs that stock local real ales, visit CAMRA’s LocAle campaign website.

3) Buy cask or draught ales, not bottles

One of the recent trends in beer consumption has been the shift from buying beer from casks or kegs, to buying beer in bottles. The transport emissions from these conveyance methods greatly increase the carbon footprint of the beer. This follows the increase in the volume of alcohol drank at home. Be sociable, and go to the pub.

If you are going to buy beer for home consumption, do not drive. This will reduce the amount of beer you can purchase (based on how much you can be bothered to carry), and will encourage you to buy canned beers rather than bottles. (Make sure that you recycle the packaging.)

4) Consider buying cheaper wines bottled in the UK

Over a third of wine’s carbon footprint is from transport. This is not surprising, as we import wine from every corner of the earth. We buy 1.2 billion bottles of wine each year in the UK, making us the world’s largest wine importer.

Expensive wine is bottled at the source, and then transported in bottles across the world. Cheaper wine for UK consumption is sometimes bottled in the UK, which reduces reduces the emissions from transport. There is another advantage too. Green glass is a waste product that has almost no reuse value in the UK. It mostly ends up in landfill or as a hardcore substitute in road manufacture. By buying wine bottled in the UK, this is providing a better use for this waste stream. For further information, see the WRAP website specifically focussing on wine.

5) Return the reusable bottles

The UK has very few breweries that take back bottles for reuse, the majority make new bottles from raw materials and glass cullet. There are conflicting arguments about whether reusable bottles at large breweries would help to reduce alcohol’s carbon footprint, due to the steam cleaning requirements to process the returned bottles. (Below is a video about the creation of new glass beer bottles. The large amounts of energy required is evident, and seems unlikely to be less than the energy required to clean reused bottles)

This week's selection from The Crafty Devil Brewing Co. Brewed in Cardiff.

This week’s selection from The Crafty Devil Brewing Co. Brewed in Cardiff.

For the major breweries, collecting empty bottles from pubs when making deliveries of new stock would not be a major difference, and has found to be beneficial if the distance is less than 1000km from the brewery. Therefore, micro-breweries that collect bottles back are likely to be reducing their carbon footprint overall. One of our local beer brewers, Crafty Devil Brewing Company, pay back 10p for each returned bottle. The bottles get reused, instead of crushed down to make road aggregate, which is far more energy efficient. Plus, as we are going over to talk to them anyway, we always buy more. This should be a great example to all small brewers looking to reduce their costs but also build loyalty with their customers.

Another reason for shifting to micro-breweries is that their products are far more expensive. Instead of buying a crate of lagers, I buy a few bottles and enjoy them. Overall, my alcohol consumption has dropped to well below the limit of 2-3 units of alcohol per day.

6) Reduce consumption

The volume of alcohol that Briton’s drink has been creeping up over the decades. This has been proven to be bad for our health, through extreme increases in NHS costs for alcohol-related admissions, but also for the nation’s carbon footprint. On average, British people now consume a staggering 11.4 liters of pure alcohol per year, for all people aged 15 and over. (As a reference, the global average is 6.1 litres/per adult/year.)

The UK’s guidelines for consumption are outlined below. The age-related recommended limits are levels of consumption that allow a 5% increase in risk above the lowest risk. These show that the people who should drink the least are young men.

Age        Recommended weekly consumption limit Recommended daily consumption limit
Adult men   21 units 3-4 units
16-24 5 units
45-54 21 units
85+ 34 units
Adult women   14 units 2-3 units
16-24 8 units
45-54 11.5 units
85+ 20 units

Read more about the alcohol we drink and its contribution to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in the following document..

Click to access ALCOHOL%20final%20version%20TG%20feb%202007.pdf

For further advice about reducing alcohol consumption, see NHS Change for Life

2 thoughts on “What is the carbon footprint of drinking alcohol, and how can we reduce it?

  1. How much CO2 will be produced by companies like Perfect Day and Clara Foods that are using fermentation to create animal protein alternatives?

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