Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

There are a lot of ways to make your morning coffee- you could use a french press, a drip machine, a machine with coffee pods… the list goes on and on.

But which way creates the fewest greenhouse gas emissions?

We had Riley Stevenson and Anna Amha from our Possibly Team look into this question. 

Riley Stevenson: Hi, Megan! 

Anna Amha: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, if I want to cut down on my emissions, how should I make my coffee?  

Anna: It’s an important question, because, unlike most plant-based foods and drinks, growing and transporting coffee creates a lot of emissions. Less than beef, but more than pork!  

Riley Stevenson: To learn more, we talked to Sébastien Humbert, a sustainability consultant at a firm called Quantis. He says that if you really want to reduce the amount of emissions that are produced by your cup of coffee, you have to look beyond what happens in your kitchen.

Sébastien Humbert:  Basically, the environmental impact of a cup of coffee is made of producing the coffee and brewing the coffee. So basically what's happening in the field and what's happening at home. 

Anna: Sébastien says that most of the emissions associated with your coffee actually come before you start to brew, because of the emissions from clearing the land to grow coffee, the  fertilizer used, and transportation.

Riley: Coffee grows in the tropics, and one study found that the emissions connected to your coffee could be cut by over 65% if it was delivered by ship rather than a plane

Megan: How am I supposed to know if my coffee is flown or shipped to my local market? 

Anna: To be honest, it’s not easy.  But both Starbucks and Nespresso have sustainability protocols that are supposed  to reduce the emissions associated with their coffees.

Riley: Another counter-intuitive piece of the puzzle is that locally-roasted coffee often creates more emissions, because unroasted coffee has about twice the shipping weight..  

Anna: Because of shipping, Sebastian says we have a surprising winner.

Sébastien: If your goal is to deliver a cup of coffee, any type of cup of coffee, the most sustainable cup of coffee, in general will be associated with instant coffee. 

Megan: Instant coffee? Why?

Riley: Instant coffee uses fewer beans per cup because it's more concentrated.

Megan: Ok, but I don’t like instant coffee.  All things being equal- let’s say the coffee is all grown and shipped in a similar way, what is the lowest emission  way to make a regular old cup of coffee in the morning?

Riley: Surprisingly, coffee makers that use pods tend to come out on top

Anna: That’s because there is little room for error in terms of how much water, electricity, and coffee grounds are used per cup compared to other methods. It’s all pre-portioned! 

Megan Hall: Really? I always thought they’d be the most wasteful, because you’re always throwing out those little containers. 

Riley Stevenson: Good point- This research is just looking at emissions per cup. If you’re worried about waste, investing in recyclable or reusable pods is one potential solution. 

Anna: It’s also important to know that capsule coffee drinkers sometimes drink more coffee because it’s so convenient to make, which could cancel out the emissions benefits.

Megan Hall: Wow - this is complicated. What am I supposed to do? 

Riley Stevenson: If you don’t want to be a coffee Sherlock Holmes, and trace every step of your coffee from Brazil, or Vietnam - the two biggest coffee producers,   here’s an easy suggestion:

Anna: Buy a coffee pot with an insulated carafe - one that turns off once the coffee is brewed and keeps it hot just by being well insulated.

Riley: Running that hot plate for an hour produces as many greenhouse gases as the coffee used for a pot of coffee. And who hasn’t forgotten to turn off the coffee pot?

Anna: Also, only make as much coffee as you need. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Riley and Anna 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.