The exquisite flavour of carbon neutrality

Moving towards carbon neutral tea to benefit both the environment and livelihoods

Tea is the world’s most consumed drink after water. Tea production and processing constitute a main source of livelihoods for millions of families in developing countries. Achieving low carbon, or carbon neutral, tea would be a big win for them and for the environment. ©FAO/Pier Paolo Cito


Step inside a tea merchant’s shop in China with its metal canisters lining the walls or scroll through the range offered by any of the country’s popular online shopping platforms and you’ll be able to choose among green teas, black teas or in-between, semi-fermented teas. But as an ancient industry turns its eyes to the future, another choice you might soon be able to make is low carbon teas. 

“In China, tea is not just an agricultural product, it also has a meaning in Chinese culture,” so it is an ideal commodity with which “to try to promote the idea that people can make their own individual contribution to curbing climate change” by their consumer choices, says Professor Yinlong Xu of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). 

The prospect has been steadily gaining ground over the last few years since FAO and the CAAS carried out a pilot project beginning in 2017. The collaboration focused on three separate tea-growing areas of the country, aiming to map out guidelines for producing low carbon or carbon neutral tea. 

Carried out in Dabu in southern China’s Guangdong Province and Longquan and Songyang in the eastern province of Zhejiang, the pilots set out to calculate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by tea production and assess the potential for mitigation and carbon sequestration. These suggested a range of possible measures such as making use of straw and manure in the tea cultivation process, improving the use of fertilizers, planting trees to provide more shade, introducing multi-cropping practices and using more renewable energy. They also explored what would be needed to replicate the model in other countries and investigated possible approaches to low carbon or carbon neutral tea certification. 

The work has already helped to lay some of the groundwork for a certification process being mapped out in China, which is the largest producer and consumer of tea and accounts for 47 percent of global tea output.  

FAO and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences carried out pilots in the southern and eastern provinces of China, setting out to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions generated by tea production and assessing the potential for mitigation and carbon sequestration. Left/top: ©FAO/Mary Jane dela Cruz. Right/Bottom: ©FAO/Pier Paolo Cito

The next important milestone will be a planned low-carbon tea project bringing together FAO, CAAS and Germany’s Agency for International Cooperation, GIZ, to conduct a similar pilot in the world’s largest tea exporting country, Kenya, which accounts for about a quarter of global tea shipments. This ambitious pilot project would include building scientific capacity, promoting enabling policies and advancing knowledge sharing, and it could serve as a reference point for promoting the low carbon tea industry worldwide.

The initiative in the East African country would be “significant because right now the only teas that have some claim to being low carbon are initiatives of companies, not whole country ones,” says FAO carbon-neutral commodities and climate action specialist, Dorota Buzon.  

Prior to the pilot study in China, there had been a dearth of research examining the carbon footprint of the entire tea value chain, from growing the tea bushes to boiling the water for the brew.  

On the one hand, the processing or withering of the tealeaves requires significant amounts of energy, as does the heating of water for the finished beverage. On the other hand, tea does not need crop rotation. As a result, FAO experts agree that this makes it one of the most suitable commodities with which to move forward towards low carbon production.

Tea is a crop highly vulnerable to climate change. The project therefore focused on both climate adaptation and mitigation measures, examining solutions such as breeding stress resistant tea varieties and improving irrigation and early warning systems in case of extreme weather. ©FAO/Kuo Li

Tea is, however, a crop highly vulnerable to climate change. That means that the climate adaptation and mitigation aspects of the project are equally important. Therefore, the pilot project set out to examine solutions such as breeding stress resistant tea varieties and improving irrigation and early warning systems in case of extreme weather. 

“We tried to exploit the synergy of adaptation and mitigation for sustainable tea production,” says Xu. “So the pilot project in China cannot be understood as just for low carbon or carbon neutrality. Adapting tea production to cope with the negative impact of climate change is essential.” 

For tea growers, all this promises better solutions to the vulnerability of their crop when facing extreme temperatures and erratic rainfall, as well as the prospect of better prices for a commodity meeting the emerging standards.  

This prospect underlines the role of tea in transforming agrifood systems and opening the way to better livelihoods for the millions of people who depend on it. 

As the world marks International Tea Day on 21 May, developing low carbon or carbon neutral teas that are both better for the planet and better for the farmers who work to cultivate it, is something to celebrate.  

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 13. Climate action