What has long been established in the scientific community has now been reaffirmed by a new study from Sweden: alcohol contributes to the climate crisis. The study was carried out by state research institute RISE together with the Karolinska Institute.
The report “Climate impact of consumption in Sweden” is based on the dietary (food, drinks, alcohol consumption) habits of 50,000 Swedes.
Climate footprint of alcohol production, packaging and transportation
Researcher analyzed the climate footprint of based on data from the alcohol production, packaging and distribution process. The research project also considered other studies that reviewed the climate footprint of the wider food and drink consumption category.
Beer and spirits are usually made from grain, which is relatively climate-efficient to grow. Light beer causes the least climate footprint because it is often sold in cans and almost exclusively brewed in Sweden, which means it doesn’t have to be shipped that far.
Wine has the largest climate footprint of all alcoholic beverages, partly because the cultivation of grapes contributes to a lot of greenhouse gases. In addition, wine is usually sold in heavy glass bottles that have undergone long transports.
Glass requires energy to manufacture and ship. An aluminum can is maybe a tenth of a millimeter thick, while a glass bottle is several millimeters think, explains Ulf Sonesson, who works with research and business development in the field of agriculture and food at RISE, according to Motdrag.
Omission of alcohol’s impact on planetary health
When Mr Sonesson and colleague Elinor Hallström began analyzing studies of the climate footprint of the Swedish diet, they discovered that basically all studies omitted alcohol.
But alcohol accounts for an average of 3% of the climate footprint from food and drink consumption in Sweden, which in turn accounts for a third of our total climate footprint.
The omission of alcohol makes little sense as it causes a significant impact on planetary and human health without adding any nutrition.
From our perspective, it is crazy to exclude alcohol,” said Ulf Sonesson and Elinor Hallström of RISE, as per Motdrag.
Alcohol is a large part of the diet’s climate impact and adds no nutrition,”Ulf Sonesson and Elinor Hallström, RISE
Disproportionate alcohol harm on climate
The figures in the RISE study are average values. This means that parts of the population’s consumption leave a much bigger impact than the three percent per person per year.
People who live free from alcohol do not contribute at all the alcohol’s production, packaging, and distribution impacts on the climate. Mr Sonesson says that people who don’t consume alcohol are doing the climate a favor, as per Motdrag reporting.
Since men generally consume more alcohol than women, they cause more greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the fact that they more often drink beer. Wine, which is more often consumed by women, has an even bigger negative effect on the climate than beer.
Wine contributes significantly to the climate crisis in several different ways. Grape cultivation contributes to a lot of greenhouse gases. Wine is also sold in heavy glass bottles, which undergo long transports. Glass itself too requires a lot of energy to manufacture and transport.
Reducing or quitting alcohol use did not match, for example, the impact of reducing or quitting meat consumption, according to Mr Sonesson. But it was at least one percent of a Swedish person’s total climate footprint that could be saved.
Understanding alcohol’s contribution to the climate crisis is an important piece of the puzzle to improve the understanding of how human consumption affects the climate.
Reducing alcohol consumption is an alternative in the effort to reduce the climate impact of human consumption. It needed to become clear that it was a choice that could be made, which would benefit both health and climate, said Mr Sonesson, according to Motdrag.
How alcohol contributes to climate crisis
The new study reveals that alcohol has a significant impact upon the climate. However, the extent of this impact is still not widely understood.
In generalised terms, the alcohol industry fuels the three planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Water and food insecurity, environmental degradation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and green-washing are part of the alcohol industry’s sustainability footprint
Through its multiple health, social and economic harms, alcohol is a massive obstacle to sustainable human development.
As calculated by the BBC climate change food calculator, alcohol, especially beer, fuels the climate crisis. When calculating emissions from one pint of beer – consumed three to five times a week and within the low-risk guidelines for alcohol use provided by the NHS – it amounts to 139 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the drinks category were dominated by tea, coffee and alcoholic beverages. Together with cakes, biscuits and confectionery, 24% of total diet-related GHG emissions derive from largely unnecessary foods and drinks.
Alcohol: Not Just Space Food
Mr Sonesson works in Research and Business Development in Agriculture and Food at RISE. He compared alcohol to ‘space food’. Space food, such as cookies, chips and sweets, provides empty calories without contributing to nutrition.
Similarly, alcohol has lots of empty calories and no nutritional benefits. In addition, alcohol harm has multidimensional impact on human and planetary health. The adverse effects of alcohol on overall health have already been well-documented. For example, alcohol has been found to have negative effects on the cardiovascular system in multiple different ways, such as increasing the risk of ischemic heart disease, ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy.
There is no safe or healthy level of alcohol use. It is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) decades ago. This is the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco.
For further reading
Blog post by Brenda Mkwesha: “Whose Water? Big Alcohol Worsens Global Water Crisis“