climate change food

Why does chocolate have a high carbon footprint?

The list of the top five most carbon intensive foods reads like this:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee

I’ve written a fair bit about the relative carbon footprints of foods, and I have mainly focused on meat and dairy. I’ve written specifically about beef and about cheese in the past, so it’s probably time I thought about the next one on the list: chocolate.  

What’s chocolate doing there? Why does it have such a high carbon footprint?

There is an obvious answer: milk. Britain’s bestselling chocolate is Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, which boasts in their tagline that each bar contains a glass and a half of milk. The logo on the packaging depicts these glasses pouring their milky goodness into the bar, implying health and wholesomeness.

Milk, in turn, has high greenhouse gas emissions because of the methane produced by cows’ digestive systems. Like cheese then, chocolate has a high milk content and is therefore a carbon intensive food.

The obvious answer is not the correct one though – at least, it’s not the whole picture. When the total impact of chocolate is considered, 70% of the climate emissions come from the cocoa. Specifically, it comes from land use change.

Land use change is a slightly technical and often overlooked aspect of climate science. It’s not something that gets much attention in introductory climate courses or in campaigning. Sometimes it is left out of statistics, or reported separately as LULUCF – Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry. So what are we talking about?

Our response to climate change is a balancing act: we work to reduce carbon emissions on the one hand, and to enhance nature’s ability to absorb carbon on the other. We can damage the stability of the atmosphere on both sides of the equation – by emitting too many greenhouse gases, or by reducing the earth’s CO2-absorbing capacity (for example, by chopping down rainforests). We can also build on and improve this take-up of CO2, also known as carbon sinks, by planting more trees or restoring wetlands. That’s what’s captured in Land Use Change statistics, which can be positive or negative.

Chocolate scores really badly for land use change because demand for cocoa has been rising for decades. More and more hectares of land have been turned over to cocoa farming, and in some places forests have been cleared to do it. It’s this loss of forests that drives up the climate footprint of cocoa.

Cocoa happens to grow best on forested mountainsides, and it has been a driver of deforestation in Peru, Ghana, Indonesia and a handful of other places. Worst of all is Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producer, where many farmers have followed a thoroughly unsustainable business model. Forests are cleared for timber, leaving behind a rich and fertile soil which is great for planting cocoa. This delivers good yields for 5-10 years before it is exhausted. Farmers, most of whom live in poverty and have few other options available to them, move on – following in the wake of illegal logging firms.

It would not be fair to blame the farmers for this. Most cocoa farming, certainly in West Africa, is carried out by smallholder producers. If they were paid fairly for their cocoa, they would be able to invest in their plantations and farm more sustainably. They also lack access to credit, and many don’t have formal land rights, which makes it risky to settle and improve the land. It’s quite possible to raise cocoa under shade trees and preserve the forest, but agroforestry takes longer to get established and needs more careful management. That needs long term investment and secure land tenure, otherwise it’s safer to keep moving on.

Fortunately, this land use pattern points to a potential win-win situation. Measures that improve the lives of smallholder farmers will also enable more sustainable production. The big chocolate brands know this, and there are cocoa and forestry schemes looking at how to address the problem. African governments know it too, and they are working on reining in illegal logging.

They have every interest in making it work, because there is evidence that climate change is already affecting cocoa production. Cacao trees are fussy and only grow in specific humidity and temperature conditions (otherwise we’d all have one in our garden, right?) The climate crisis is changing those conditions, with studies showing how the ideal altitude for cocoa production is moving steadily uphill with the passing years. If the industry doesn’t find ways to grow cocoa sustainably, climate change will undermine yields and everyone will wish they acted sooner.

For those who enjoy chocolate today, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to do so – though there are many reasons why you might want to enjoy chocolate in moderation. The state of your arteries as much as the state of the climate. I’d say choose quality over quantity, and pay a bit more for the good stuff.

Look out for Fairtrade chocolate, Rainforest Alliance certification, or better yet, smallholder-owned brands such as Divine. The brand Green and Black’s are Fairtrade, organic, and have invested specifically in shade grown cocoa. There are lots of smaller chocolate producers these days, so have a look around and see what you like that’s making a difference – and let me know in the comments below if you have a favourite.

11 comments

  1. I enjoy Endangered Species Chocolate as well as Alter Eco and now a brand called Tazza. I’ve been trying to wean myself off coffee and onto tea…betting that will be next on the list, tho! Thanks as always for the terrific content.

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