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  • Origin and limitations


    A frequently encountered assumption is that coffee growers can (easily) benefit from what is called the carbon-offset or carbon-credit market. This because supermarket chains, other retailers and consumer organizations are, sometimes publicly so, asking the coffee distribution chain (roasters, importers, others) to move to what is called a carbon-neutral product footprint. This is a situation wherein the carbon emissions (carbon-dioxide or CO2) that the coffee chain produces are offset by carbon-reducing activities. And yes, in principle coffee growing offers potential for this but it must be stressed that agri-based offsets are not widespread as yet. For reasons that will be explained below.

    But first…

    Different ecosystems each have a distinct potential to trap carbon atoms. A tropical forest will isolate more carbon than a temperate forest, or grasslands or an agricultural ecosystem. In the same way, different agricultural coffee systems have distinct potential to trap carbon atoms: forest coffee, smallholder plots, commercial plantations, coffee with or without shade, with or without intercropping etc.. But, whereas coffee production is often assumed not to contribute to GHG emissions, the fact is that auditing of an entire farming operation will reveal GHG leakages, the most obvious of which are the use of tractors, vehicles, electric motors, burning of firewood and the like that contribute to GHG emissions - see also topic box 13.04.03.

    The Kyoto Protocol referred to in section 13.01 of this chapter created what is known as the Clean Development Mechanism or CDM. This allows developed countries to invest in projects in developing countries to reduce GHG emissions, and to promote sustainable development by structured projects that can result in the selling of Certified Emission Reductions or CER. CDM projects must demonstrate their additionality, i.e. they have an additional/added value effect in the GHG scenario. Under the additionality concept, coffee farms would have to prove that they create GHG savings that are additional to anything that might happen anyway. The additionality margin is always confronted against a baseline that is traced comparing the farms with and without the CDM Project. *

    What does this mean? 

    • Established stands of both coffee and shade trees are not taken into account as they are part of an already existing situation. However, the conservation of existing forest cover and improvement of general agricultural practices, resulting in more eco-friendly coffee stands, are other avenues towards earning carbon credits, provided net GHG gains can be shown.
    • New activities such as the introduction of intercropping with suitable GHG absorbing plants, the planting of additional shade trees and the rehabilitation of degraded lands and hillsides can count. This could include the planting of additional coffee and shade trees but only if it can be proven that the land in question had previously been in a prolonged state of degradation…
    • The calculations to determine the net result of different activities are complex and the final result may only justify the effort if larger areas are covered. This makes it difficult if not impossible for individual smallholders to participate directly in carbon offsets.

    The advantage of the CDM process is that it results in "certified" carbon credits that offer the traceability and credibility as set out in the Kyoto Protocol procedures. These credits can be traded on established, formal markets with transparent pricing procedures.
    In practical terms however the CDM approach may not be the best suited for smallholder coffee because of the difficulty to measure the different coffee production processes accurately in terms of GHG impact.

    * Defining mechanisms for isolating GHG from the atmosphere and goals for limited GHG emissions were needed and the global response was materialized in a document called the Kyoto Protocol. The most publicised source of global warning are fossil fuels (electricity generation, manufacturing, transport etc) but deforestation in non-industrialised countries also contributes quite considerably as it reduces the available tree park. Trees are efficient absorbers of CO2 whereas burning them releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere... Industries and others that produce GHG can calculate their emissions and offset these against certificates of emission reduction or CER. For example by investing in planting new trees or sources of renewable energy, either directly or (mostly) through the purchase of offset or renewable energy certificates generated by others who engage in these activities. The international market for such certificates is developing rapidly and is generally referred to as the emissions offset market. Much background information is available at www.v-c-s.org