Know the facts about alcohol and climate change

Articles New York Times

If you did dry January this year, you probably reduced your carbon footprint without knowing it. That’s because alcohol production and distribution can be quite energy intensive. So, what if you want to reduce your environmental footprint but you’re not quite ready to hop on the wagon and stay there?

Whatever your poison, one of the most important things you can do, for your health and for the planet, is drink in moderation. Even if you don’t cut out the booze, keep it reasonable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that means one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

Beyond that, it helps to know the facts about your drink of choice.

Broadly speaking, liquor tends to be more environmentally sustainable per unit. “The more concentrated they are, the less impact they have,” Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, said of alcoholic beverages.

Drinkers typically get more mileage out of a bottle of spirits than wine or beer. That’s especially true if you drink to get a buzz. Simply put: Liquor is quicker.

For beer, the world’s most consumed alcoholic beverage, refrigeration is a big part of the emissions equation. A 2008 study by the New Belgium Brewing Company, based in Fort Collins, Colo., found that the greenhouse gas emissions from one six-pack were about the same as driving a car nearly eight miles. The largest share of those emissions came from refrigeration. Craft beers must remain chilled to retain their flavor profile, experts say.

Another factor to consider is packaging materials. Is the beer in a glass bottle or a can? In the United States, the most environmentally friendly option is almost always the can. Not only is aluminum lighter to ship, but it’s more likely to be recycled.

According to Georgie Walker, co-author of a sustainability study for the Firestone Walker Brewing Company, her family’s business, it’s also important to look at the number of miles a beer has covered after being bottled. Then, buy local.

“It will be fresher,” Ms. Walker said. “It won’t be sitting in storage as long and won’t have the gas miles behind it.”

Shipping distance can also be an important consideration when choosing climate-friendly wine. A study by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, for example, found that transportation accounted for 13 percent of wine’s emissions in the state.

Generally, shipping by sea is better than train, and train is better than truck.

An easy way to assess the emissions in play is to consider the East Coast, West Coast divide. Wines from Chile, for instance, are often transported in giant vats via ship to the West Coast, where they are bottled and then moved to market. Those wines could be a sustainable option for, say, drinkers in Oregon, but not in New Hampshire.

Easterners, on the other hand, may be better off with French Burgundies that were shipped across the Atlantic. Many wine labels list origin and bottling details.

For wine, though, there is no bigger emissions culprit than bottles.

Manufacturing a 750 milliliter glass bottle accounts for 33 percent of a wine’s life cycle emissions in North America, according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable.

Want a better alternative? Try bag-in-box wines.

Yes, we know. Quelle horreur. But the quality of boxed wines has been improving for a while now.

According to a 2011 study of California’s wine industry, boxes reduce the drink’s overall carbon footprint by 40 percent. Boxed wines also last longer after being opened and the packaging is largely recyclable.

According to Dr. Kendall, the U.C. Davis professor, you can use that to help win over skeptics.

“You can feel O.K. about maybe going lower-end on your wine choices and tell your snobby friends you’re saving the environment,” she said.