Green Whisky

Green Whisky

What is the Scotch whisky industry doing to protect the planet for future generations?

News | 27 Apr 2020 | By Christopher Coates

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More than 22 years have passed since John Browne, then chief executive of British Petroleum (BP) and now the RH Lord Browne of Madingley, famously acknowledged a ‘discernible human influence on the climate’ and the energy sector’s role in the rise of global CO2 concentrations, during a speech at Stanford University. It caused something of a stir at the time and can be viewed as a key turning point in relations between environmentalists, big business and society at large. By facing up to its own biggest problem, BP had, in theory, made it less socially acceptable for companies to continue burying their heads in the sand when it came to the issue of global warming.

Yet, two decades on, the climate crisis is still front page news; the activists of Extinction Rebellion are calling for ‘non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience’ to force legislative action; and BP is such a hot potato that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has ended its association with the world-famous National Galleries BP Portrait Award, which has been sponsored by the oil giant for the last 30 years and exhibited in Edinburgh for a decade.

Stories of melting glaciers; rising sea levels; record-breaking temperatures; fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, Australia and the USA; priceless Venice buildings submerged in flood water; and a giant ‘garbage patch’ of plastic in the Pacific – to mention but a few pressing concerns – continue to loom large and, as a result, more and more people are worrying about the ecological future of our planet. In response, politicians have disagreed about what to do; Google has been caught donating to organisations that support climate-change denial; some vocal and powerful groups have continued to deny, mislead or seek to discredit the evidence supporting human-induced climate change; Trump has cyber-bullied Greta Thunberg and many key polluting industries have generally continued to prioritise profits over real change to a green business model.

However, those companies hedging their bets on the public succumbing to so-called ‘green fatigue’ and becoming apathetic or even hostile to environmentalism may be out of luck.

The term ‘eco-anxiety’, which is described by The American Psychological Association (APA) as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’, has been around since at least the mid-2000s, but it was in the final years of the last decade that it really manifested in the Western zeitgeist – and it seems to be here to stay. Late last year, Time magazine reported on a surge in reports of stress, guilt and feelings of depression (not to be confused with clinical depression or anxiety) relating to the environment in both developing nations, where climate change is often felt more acutely, and developed countries, where the spectre of what’s to come looms large.

Regardless of where they live, many people generally report feeling frustrated and powerless to enact meaningful ecological change in their own lives and wider society. Unfortunately, this problem is exacerbated by one of the more insidious types of climate change denial: deflection of responsibility from the macro to the micro level. This narrative is, quite successfully, being driven by vested interests that tell us responsibility lies solely, or at least largely, with individuals rather than corporations and governments – flying in the face of evidence that shows 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions originate with just 100 companies.

Of course, there’s still something to be said for protesting with one’s wallet and it has never been more important that we choose carefully which products we buy and the brands we support. However, while change on a personal level is important and to be encouraged, it’s industry-level progress and governmental policy change that will really make a difference to the planet and its inhabitants in the long run. Although a bottle of Scotch is one of the more environmentally guilt-free items one might find in the home, that doesn’t mean all whisky is ‘green’ or that whisky drinkers should sit back and give distillers a free pass when it comes to their impact on our shared planet. After all, the industry is still largely driven by volume and greater volume of product means greater resource use and environmental impact.

All along the supply chain, distillers have serious challenges to tackle: from reducing road miles to demanding more stringent environmental standards in grain production; tackling packaging weight and waste, to reducing water use and improving heat conservation. There’s also wood to consider.

Many brands are famous for telling all who will listen how much money they spend on casks each year, while being uncharacteristically quiet about the measures they take to ensure that the timber destined to become a stave is sourced from responsibly managed and sustainable forests.

Over the past decade, it is evident that environmentalism has steadily moved up the whisky industry’s list of key concerns, as consumers have come to demand higher eco standards from both themselves and their favourite brands. Though the phasing out of single-use plastic straws and cups in some markets is probably one of the most visual ways that the wider beverage industry has quickly shifted in favour of one greener alternative, the bulk of progress (or lack thereof) in the world of whisky has been happening quietly behind the scenes and has received little mainstream publicity.

Back in 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) announced an Environmental Strategy for the entire category (the first of its kind for an industry in Scotland) that set what the trade body described as ‘challenging’ 2020 targets for distillers across emissions, water, packaging and waste. It’s worth noting, however, that all of these SWA targets are voluntary, only apply to members of the association (there are 74 at present, representing most of the major players), and shouldn’t be confused with UK laws governing environmental regulation and sustainability.

The 2009 strategy was reviewed in 2016 and the most recent report, in 2018, showed promising results. For example, by 2020 the SWA aimed for the Scotch whisky category to source 20 per cent of all energy from non-fossil fuels. This target was met four years early and, by 2018, the report showed that 21 per cent of primary energy use came from non-fossil fuels, up from just three per cent in 2008. The next targets are 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050, though a stretch target of 90 per cent has been considered.

The industry has also reduced its overall CO2 emissions by 22 per cent since 2008, an improvement resulting largely from the widespread implementation of energy efficiency technologies in production and increasing use of lower or zero carbon-emitting energy sources. For example, where a distillery’s energy can’t be switched to fully sustainable sources, moving from fuel oil to natural gas or liquified petroleum gas still allows a production site to significantly reduce its CO2 emissions. This is partly due to those energy sources being generally cleaner than oil, but also because they allow for use of efficiency technology such as boiler economisers.

In Speyside, home to the highest concentration of Scotch whisky distilleries, the industry is collaborating to extend the local gas grid, which recently has allowed at least eight distilleries to shift to natural gas, while also extending local domestic access to the grid and reducing reliance on more costly gas canister or oil deliveries. This latter point is an important additional benefit, as fuel poverty is an acute issue in Moray, with 32 per cent of households spending more than 10 per cent of income on fuel. For distillers, this shift has both helped to slowly wean production sites off fuel oil, but also reduced overall road miles as deliveries are no longer needed year-round to keep the boiler running. Unfortunately, restrictions still exist in the Speyside mains gas network and some sites are only able to utilise it during the summer months when domestic demand is lower.

However, in spite of these developments, fossil-fuel reliance is still a real and significant challenge for the whole industry.

Concerning road miles, there is currently no collated data or reduction target set by the SWA as part of its environmental strategy. However, Scotland is leading the way in the UK on electric vehicle (EV) charging and the average distance between charging points is just 2.78 miles, compared to 3.77 miles in England. Furthermore, the Electric A9 initiative is helping to deliver frequent charging points that link Northern Scotland with the central belt. Unfortunately, we are still a few years away from the widespread adoption of hybrid or other low-emission-fuel systems for the haulage vehicles that transport bulk spirit, malt, and co-products, and electric HGVs are even further away.

Nevertheless, the implementation of charging infrastructure is slowly helping to reduce ‘range anxiety’ and will hopefully encourage both public and commercial drivers to consider changing to EVs for passenger traffic. While charging points are not yet common sights at most distilleries, for either business or tourist use, industry sources suggest that we should see the rate of installation increasing in the coming year.
On water use, it is worth noting that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) states that the Scotch whisky industry is ‘one of the most consistently compliant sectors’ that it regulates and, currently, 94.7 per cent of Scotch whisky distilleries meet the environmental rules. SEPA’s Scotch Whisky Sector Plan aims to build on this success and focuses on ‘unlocking the potential of beyond-compliance opportunities’, while also addressing remaining issues.

Also worthy of mention is the Spirits Energy Efficiency Company (SEEC), a joint venture between SWA and the Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA). It is the Climate Change Agreement sector association for the UK spirit drinks category and currently includes 80 distilleries throughout the UK, 75 of which are Scotch whisky distilleries, and more than 20 Scotch whisky companies participate in the scheme. Participation enables sites to benefit from reduced Climate Change Levy rates in return for meeting energy efficiency targets. At the last milestone for which there is publicly available data (2007), the industry achieved a specific energy consumption (SEC) of 6.66 kWh per litre of pure alcohol (lpa) against a target of 6.75 kWh/lpa. By 2010, SEEC participants had improved efficiency significantly, with energy use reduced by 18 per cent against the 1999 baseline level. Updated figures for both of these measures should be published by the end of 2020.

Unfortunately, not all areas have seen progress.

In particular, average unit packaging weight has actually increased by 2.4 per cent since the 2012 base line, against a target of 10 per cent reduction by 2020. This failure is most likely driven by the abundance of premiumisation programmes seen across many Scotch whisky brands in the past few years, which have seen most move to heavier and more elaborate packaging. In wholesale and retail too, there have been few signs of improvement, with most whisky suppliers still shipping bottles in air-filled plastic packaging and few offering ‘naked’ options for customers preferring to receive product without outer packs. Though, to give credit where it’s due, Edinburgh retailer Royal Mile Whiskies moved to plastic-free, recyclable shipping packaging in 2019 and now practices a circular system where incoming cardboard is repurposed as outgoing void filler.

We can expect a new report from the SWA before the end of 2020 that will report on the successes and failures of the 2009-20 strategy and outline new targets for 2030 and beyond. In the meantime, the SWA’s 2016 results can be seen in the table below.

Importantly, one likely new addition for the SWA’s 2020 Environmental Strategy will be a Peat Use Action Plan. The SWA was one of the key stakeholders consulted in the creation of Scottish Natural Heritage’s National Peatland Plan and, as part of its focus on land management, the SWA’s 2020 strategy will likely enshrine the industry’s continued support for preserving Scotland’s natural peat bogs. This will hopefully include targets and guidance that will help Scottish distillers use peat as efficiently and responsibly as possible.

According to the SWA, the whisky industry is only responsible for 0.1 per cent of peat use in Scotland.

Nevertheless, it is important that the impact of the industry is kept to an absolute minimum as peat is a high carbon-emitting fossil fuel and its extraction can have serious environmental impacts. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) explain that peat bogs (especially blanket bog) provide an array of benefits including providing a home for wildlife, countering climate change by locking up carbon, reducing flood risk, purifying drinking water and slowing the spread of wildfire.

Forming the foundation of delicate wetland ecosystems, often home to now-endangered wildlife, peat has been cut and burned as domestic fuel throughout human history, and the scars left by historic extraction can be seen all over the world. Scotland’s sphagnum moss-rich peat, which plays an irreplaceable role in the production of smoky whiskies, was once to be found just as often in a home’s hearth as a distillery maltings’ kiln. In malting, peat was phased out almost everywhere (including Speyside, where a lightly peated style was once commonplace) except the islands when distilleries shifted to centralised maltings in the 1960-70s. It is retained today solely for its role in imparting flavour, rather than as an energy source per se.

Unlike other fossil fuels, mature peat bogs develop relatively quickly and only take thousands, not millions, of years to develop. Importantly, during the process of their formation, peat bogs act as a carbon sink and trap CO2 that would otherwise be released if the plant material which makes up the wet, oxygen-deprived bog had been able to decompose aerobically. Burning peat for distilling purposes does, of course, release this carbon, but peat-cutting for whisky production comprises a tiny proportion of overall extraction in Scotland, the majority of which (circa 90 per cent) is for horticultural use. What’s more, overall peat extraction in Scotland (and the UK) is declining, though use of imported peat for horticulture is very high, which suggests that the problem of unsustainable extraction is not solved but simply being exported abroad. Thankfully, this issue is not likely exacerbated by the whisky industry, as distillers favour peat from particular Scottish locations, often specific to their distillery. This is because geographical location and, thus, the peat’s material make-up of local flora, impacts flavours in the final spirit.

However, extraction figures don’t tell the full story. Another pressing ecological threat is the drying (historic and ongoing) of peat bogs. In Scotland, bogs may have been dried out in order to extract peat or to build on the reclaimed land, but also to create suitable moorland for driven grouse shooting. This drying-out halts the carbon capture process and even begins to reverse it, leading to the emission of CO2 as the vegetation decomposes aerobically. Making matters worse, carbon release is sped up when the land is burned to prompt new heather growth, a common practice that (if not carefully managed) can get out of control.

Worse still, as human-induced climate change progresses and temperatures rise, the likelihood of dried-out bogs burning on account of wildfire also becomes more likely, playing into a feedback loop that results in drier summers, higher temperatures, and increased likelihood of fires.

It is for this reason that some distillers have acted to preserve the condition of their local peat bogs. Highland Park extracts its peat from Hobbister Moor, leasing the inactive portions to the RSPB for management as a bird sanctuary. The distillery has also successfully taken steps in recent years to improve efficiency and now uses less peat per litre of spirit produced than in the past, all without impacting spirit character. In a similar vein, back in 2017 Diageo donated £60,000 to the RSPB as part of the Lagavulin Legacy project, funding that has been put towards ‘re-wetting’ peat bogs at the charity’s Islay estates at The Oa and Loch Gruinart.

In other areas, Glengoyne has also supported habitat conservation through a successful partnership with the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust, Tamdhu has built a fish pass on the Knockando Burn that is helping wild trout and salmon to spawn upstream, Glenmorangie has launched a project to restore the lost oyster beds of the Dornoch Firth and new distilleries such as Nc’nean, GlenWyvis, Ardnamurchan and Dalmunach have been designed with sustainable distilling as a priority. Recently, Chivas Brothers announced a new Sustainability Strategy and, as part of its 2030 targets, committed to creating the first carbon-neutral distillery within two years.

While such projects and commitments are indicative of a positive direction of travel regarding eco issues, there’s clearly still a long way to go on the road to truly ‘green’ whisky. Though we can, at the very least, raise a dram to an industry that is gradually moving towards self-awareness and progress.
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