How a Costa Rica coffee collective went carbon neutral

The world's first carbon-neutral coffee producer spills the beans on creating a zero-emissions cup of joe.

Whitney Eulich
Vincent Wang of Black Gold, a company that exports Central American coffee to Asia, tastes five varieties of Coopedota coffee beans. He says his customers don't prioritize the fact that the product is carbon neutral, but he considers it a plus.

Eduardo Porras stands in the middle of his flatbed pickup truck, sweeping coffee in shades of red and maroon off the edge. The small fruit, encapsulating precious coffee beans, shower down into large wooden boxes that are tallied up and paid out to his family.

Mr. Porras, who works with his mother and two sisters, hopes his future children will one day join the family tradition of cultivating coffee. But sometimes, he says, he wonders if it will still be a viable business.

“The plants have been going crazy lately,” he says, describing changing weather patterns like weeks without rain during the traditional wet season, or deluges when it’s typically dry. Last year seemed to be 12 months straight of rain. “The plants are flowering and have fruit at the same time,” he says, something no one here has seen before.

“The climate is changing in every sense,” says Porras, who is a member of the coffee cooperative Coopedota. “I’ll make whatever changes I can to” to keep his livelihood.

Costa Rica has a global reputation for prioritizing the environment, turning 25 percent of its land into protected forests and marketing itself to tourists as an ecoparadise. In 2007, it pledged to become carbon neutral in 14 years, setting the stage for other nations’ net-zero pledges at the Paris climate talks in 2015. It's a lofty goal that requires big changes in everything from how goods are moved across the country to the electricity, water, and chemicals used to produce them. But a handful of companies and sectors have emerged as national leaders here – including coffee. And Coopedota is leading the way. 

Costa Rica’s identity is tightly intertwined with the cash crop. The green bushes with red fruit flank government buildings in the capital, and historic sites, like the National Theater, were built with imported materials like Italian marble thanks in large part to coffee export taxes. These deep roots could easily have created resistance to change, but coffee companies and cooperatives became some of the first in Costa Rica’s agricultural sector to go carbon neutral. Agriculture contributes just under 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions; coffee alone makes up about 9 percent.

In 2011, Coopedota, the cooperative where Porras is an associate, became the world's first certified carbon-neutral coffee. It has since worked closely with others in the coffee sector, as well as with producers of other crops such as pineapples and bananas.

The changes started gradually for the nearly 900-member cooperative. They switched out their wood-burning ovens for ones that burned coffee-plant waste, and conducted soil surveys on associates’ farms, which allowed them to use fertilizer more efficiently. But for businesses to buy in, going carbon neutral has to be about more than love for the environment, says Adrian Cordero, who has led environmental management at Coopedota for the past 17 years. 

“I can be a big environmentalist, but if I can’t justify the cost of a project [to reduce carbon emissions], no company will sign on to it,” says Mr. Cordero, sipping a cappuccino in one of Coopedota’s on-site cafes. “We were always looking for ways to be cost effective.”

But as these projects started piling up, Coopedota realized their environmental benefit as well. In 2004, they started formally recycling and focusing on reducing water consumption. They teamed up with Yale and other universities to identify opportunities to reduce emissions and, in 2011, they were certified by The British Standards Institution as the world’s first producer of carbon-neutral coffee, from plant to cup.

Coopedota works with farmers to ensure their planting and growing processes are in line with reducing emissions, encouraging them to plant more trees and use the shade-cover to protect coffee plants. The cost of transporting the beans to and from the cooperative is offset with carbon credits.

“Our goal is to train the farmers. Many have generations of experience growing coffee and because of that they rely on techniques from 60 years ago,” Cordero says. But with the changing climate, which has reduced coffee yields nationwide by 39 percent since 2000, farmers are eager to learn new techniques.

In 2015, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to have a coffee-specific Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions plan, which lays out the steps needed for industry members to reduce carbon emissions. The work involves guiding and training the nearly 6,000 coffee producers nationwide.

Down a steep ramp and just beyond an area where coffee beans clatter through machines that sort them by size, weight, and color, Kyoko Yano and Vincent Wang are sampling coffee with silver spoons.  

The husband and wife behind Black Gold, a coffee import-export company that sells unroasted Central American beans to buyers in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, are taking notes on a digital application that helps track their impressions of the coffee.

Mr. Wang says this will be his third year buying from Coopedota. And although he personally likes that they’re taking steps to consider the environment in their business model, his decision to buy comes down to other factors.

“The quality is very good,” he says. “It’s in style to be socially conscious and to think about the planet when buying products in the US or in Europe, but that trend hasn’t quite reached the Asian consumer yet.”

National Congressman Marco Vinicio Redondo Quirós, who plans to work in agriculture after finishing his time in office this year, says Costa Rica should be doing more to distinguish its products, like Coopedota’s carbon-neutral coffee, on the world stage.

“We’ve put so much focus on becoming carbon neutral or creating products that are produced responsibly, but there hasn’t been enough emphasis on creating a global market and presenting our goods with a different vision,” Congressman Redondo says. If that were the case, Costa Rican producers could charge far more for the environmental benefits of their exports, he says.

Despite leading the way on carbon neutrality, many agree Costa Rica could be doing more. It’s unlikely the nation will meet its 2021 goal, a date that coincides with its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. The government says it’s still committed to 2021, but submitted a document in the lead-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks noting that Costa Rica was “looking to accomplish zero net emissions by 2085.”

“When I mention this to people they say, ‘Oh, they’re putting this off,’ ” says Julia Flagg, who teaches environmental studies at Connecticut College and has written extensively about national pledges for carbon neutrality. “But it does potentially mean that they are also taking this more seriously. They’ve reexamined the science and this [new date] is what is realistic.”

Costa Rica is far ahead of most countries when it comes to generating clean energy. The country was able to meet electrical generation needs without fossil fuels for almost all of last year, according to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute. But anyone who sits in the ubiquitous traffic of the capital, San José, realizes there’s immense work to be done on reducing reliance on gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

“For as many problems as there are with Costa Rica’s pledge, it’s amazing that its stuck around this long and that they wrote a whole national strategy on climate change around this. There’s substance there,” says Dr. Flagg.

Back at Coopedota, Porras hops into his truck, scooching beside his sister, ready to return home to his farm. “Costa Rica is ready to take action” on the climate, he says through the open window. “Coffee has been important for [the country] from the beginning, funding schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.”

“We all have our role to play in the environment, but here, I’m happy that my coffee can set an example.”

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