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How Starbucks plans to make its coffee carbon neutral

From smarter farming to new varieties, the coffee giant is working on a variety of strategies to end emissions on the farms that produce its beans.

How Starbucks plans to make its coffee carbon neutral
[Photo: Starbucks/Josh Trujillo]
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If you buy an espresso at Starbucks—brewed in a machine running on renewable electricity—most of the carbon footprint of the drink comes from how the coffee was grown. But by the end of the decade, the company plans to reach its goal of making even the production of its raw coffee beans carbon neutral.

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[Photo: Starbucks/Josh Trujillo]
The company is still studying the problem and experimenting with the most effective solutions to allow it to reach its goal. In trials with smallholder farmers, Starbucks is testing a new app that can scan the soil and instantly give farmers details about the health of the soil, so fertilizer, a major source of emissions, can be targeted to only the places that it’s needed and used in the best combinations. “In the field, within minutes, you can have the ability to test a sample, get data downloaded, and have the best mixes brought to the surface,” says Michelle Burns, senior vice president for global coffee and tea at Starbucks. The app can aggregate tens of thousands of soil samples and visualize trends across the company’s supply chain.

The new technology can also track how more carbon is stored in the soil over time as farmers take additional steps like planting shade trees next to coffee. On an experimental farm that the company runs in Costa Rica, the company is also helping breed and test new varieties of coffee trees that can better resist disease. The trees can produce more coffee beans, which means that they also sequester more carbon in the soil while helping farmers with small plots earn a better living.

[Photo: Starbucks/Josh Trujillo]
To offset any remaining emissions, Starbucks is working with nonprofits like Conservation International to fund projects that protect existing forests and restore forests in other areas. It’s been doing similar work for years, but the programs are scaling up now to meet the 2030 goal for carbon-neutral green coffee (green, in this case, means raw beans before they’re roasted—the carbon-neutral goal doesn’t yet include the entire lifecycle of coffee.) It’s part of a larger plan to cut carbon emissions in half as a company by 2030, and a longer-term aim to become “resource positive,” or give more back to the planet than it takes—including storing more carbon than it emits. The goals are ambitious, but they’re also necessary to the company’s bottom line: Coffee itself is particularly susceptible to climate change.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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