Words by Christina Dean

In the face of a worsening climate crisis, there are businesses using innovative technologies to actually make a difference when it comes to emissions

The Paris Agreement states that to stick to a global temperature increase limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world would need to halve its emissions by 2030. A method that’s long been employed by both individuals and organisations to cut emissions and be more sustainable in the face of rising global temperatures is carbon offsetting. 

Carbon offsetting works on the principle that you compensate for your emissions in one area by making a saving in a different one, like travelling by plane but planting some trees to make up the carbon emitted during that flight. There are numerous programmes that promise carbon offsetting on an industrial scale, where businesses can contribute to schemes like safe water projects in Uganda and wind farm operations in Thailand, to offset the emissions caused by the production of goods. While offsetting works in theory, and in practice when implemented as part of a genuine commitment to cutting down a carbon footprint, it can often be used to greenwash operations that actually have next-to-no eco credentials. 

Carbon Market Watch carried out four landmark studies and found that “offsetting provides an excuse for avoiding real emission reductions and can create a dangerous mirage of ‘climate neutrality’ when emissions are actually rising. It can also lead to greater emissions once carbon is released into the atmosphere from temporary stores. In fact, offsetting helps mask low ambition, with many companies misusing carbon credits to greenwash their images”. 

The reality is that it’s simply not enough just to offset, the focus has to be on emission reduction, especially as the UK has the target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050. How can it be done? Going carbon neutral is the first step, which is when a person or business balances the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere with the amount they remove from it, to achieve net zero carbon (net zero can also refer to greenhouse gas emissions, which also includes other gases like methane and nitrous oxide as well as CO2). The move beyond that is to go carbon negative or climate positive, which is when more carbon (or greenhouse gases) is removed from the atmosphere than is produced by that person or organisation. 

There are several processes that can be employed in the pursuit of achieving carbon negativity. Regenerative farming is a method of carbon sequestration – that’s capturing, removing and storing carbon from the atmosphere – and an integral mechanism in the fight against climate change. Wildfarmed, founded by Andy Cato, George Lamb and Edd Lees, uses a regenerative agriculture network and techniques that promote soil biodiversity and capture carbon to grow wheat for flour. Independent South London brewery Gipsy Hill has worked with Wildfarmed to create the world’s first offset-free carbon negative beer, where each pint removes more greenhouse gases than it produces so there’s no need for carbon offset. 

The team have managed to do it by using certified regenerative barley, sourced exclusively from Wildfarmed – the farming methods used to grow the barley means it sequesters more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere – and an innovative brewing technique that combines that barley with recaptured hops. This is the stuff that’s removed after the fermentation of a previous batch of beer and then reused (rather than thrown away) to bitter and flavour a new batch. Where a typical pint creates 350g of CO2 emissions, Gipsy Hill has produced the Swell Lager at -40gCO2e per pint, and the Trail Pale Ale at -30gCO2e per pint. And it’s not just the brewing process that’s done it, the whole carbon life cycle of the beer, from growing the barley to the end life of the packaging, has been assessed by carbon accounting firm Zevero to ensure that it truly is carbon negative. 

Speaking about the new brews, co-founder of Gipsy Hill Brewery Sam McMeeken said, “At Gipsy Hill, we have always tried to make sure our beer has a positive impact, and that’s why we have actively sought to introduce new innovations to the brewing process and work with the most innovative producers to push the boundaries of sustainable brewing. By truly embedding sustainability into our brewing process, rather than simply offsetting emissions, we have created a blueprint for sustainable beer range, but the wider food and drink industry.”

In fact, Gipsy Hill’s carbon negative beers have been so successful that the team has collaborated with four other breweries – Verdant, Amundsen Brewery, Cloudwater and North Brew – to produce four more carbon negative offset-free beers, including an imperial stout and a blackcurrant sour.

Another booze brand making great strides in the carbon negative space is Two Drifters Rum. The Devon-based biz, founded by Russ and Gemma Wakeham, uses waste sugarcane from Tate & Lyle’s London sugar factory to make the rum, which is produced in an all-electric distillery, stored in sustainable packaging (the glass bottles are light and made in the UK and also feature a cork top, a 100% compostable tamper seal and a label made from waste sugarcane fibre), and transported using electric vehicles.

The pair also use carbon offsetting effectively to compensate for the emissions they can’t avoid – they count farming the sugarcane and shipping the molasses in their total, even though they get it as waste from another business – by working with Climeworks, an organisation that can collect and remove carbon from the atmosphere, which then gets turned into stone and permanently stored underground in Iceland by another company Carbfix. 

It’s these innovative and forward-thinking partnerships that are the key for businesses to significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Earlier this summer North London ice cream parlour Ruby Violet teamed up with Swiss-British AgriTech firm Mootral to create Maxi-Mootral, the world’s first climate friendly ice cream. Mootral has developed a feed supplement made up of garlic and citrus that helps cut methane emissions produced by cows by up to 38%, without impacting the yield or the taste of the milk. Ruby Violet used milk from cows from Brades Farm that had been fed the Mootral supplement (meaning they produced less methane) to make the special scoops.

It was only a trial, with a limited number of the ice creams being handed out to the public for free, but it indicates that processes and technologies that can truly move the needle in terms of sustainability do exist, it’s just the commitment to make the initial push that’s needed.