Climate Change at Our Door: Is Cork Part of the Solution?

Jane Masters is an independent Wine Business Consultant, Master of Wine, Oenologist, and MBA from the London Business School. She has extensive experience in the international wine trade and a strong interest in building sustainability into wine business’ strategy working with a range of international clients.

She has been actively involved in the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine as a member of its governing council and served as Chairman 2016-18. Currently, she is a founding member of the Institute’s Sustainability Committee and organizes the IMW Sustainability webinar series.

As I write this blog, Europe is experiencing record-beating summer temperatures. Epernay in the heart of France’s Champagne region hit 40ºC (104F) this week as did parts of the UK – both considered cool climates. An early heatwave in June in Spain registered equally high temperatures which continue. Forest fires raging in the Gironde close to the Bordeaux wine region, difficult to control due to the heatwave temperatures, have destroyed more than 20,000 hectares.

The climate emergency is the most urgent and chronic threat to sustainable quality wine production. Wine regions around the world have witnessed increased droughts, high temperatures, and wildfires including California, Australia, and South Africa in recent years. Global wine production in 2017 was historically low due to spring frosts across Europe. France was again severely hit by frost last year with a -19% drop in wine produced in 2021.

Scientists and politicians worldwide agree that climate change is of our own making due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that to limit warming to 1.5ºC, greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. https://climateactiontracker.org/global/cat-thermometer/ which tracks the Earth’s average surface temperature shows an increase of +1.2ºC in 2021. Our window for 1.5ºC is closing.

In terms of the global wine trade, many wine companies have environmental and/or corporate social responsibility programs that may be part of a sustainability certification of one sort or another. With regard specifically to greenhouse emissions, some public commitments have been made: Australia Wine & Grape industry aims to reduce scope 1 & 2 emissions to net zero by 2035; International Wineries for Climate Action, part of the Race to Zero, has approximately 30 member wineries committed to net zero by 2050; The Wine Society in the UK has committed to achieving net zero across its operations and supply chain by 2040 and there are others.

Yet greenhouse gas commitments are few and far between and the fact remains that as a trade we are contributing to our own demise (and that of the world). Reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the wine supply chain needs to be front of mind. Every wine business, whether growing grapes, making and or bottling wine, shipping it, or selling it, is generating greenhouse gas emissions and should focus on reducing them. That means Scope 1 – direct emissions from operations, Scope 2 emissions associated with purchased energy used by the company, and Scope 3 emissions associated with purchased goods and services, transportation, and distribution.

Sustainability does not end in the vineyard, it must be carried through to packaging as well. Scope 3 emissions represent over 60% of emissions for wine, arising mainly from the use of heavy glass bottles and transport. The Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), which guides companies to align plans with the 1.5ºC goal, indicates that if Scope 3 emissions account for more than 40% of total greenhouse gas emissions an action plan must be developed to reduce them. As a trade collectively we must challenge and influence glass bottle manufacturers and transporters to align their plans to reduce their Scope1 & 2 emissions to halve emissions by 2030. In the short term, there are decisions that can be made – move to lighter weight bottles and/or alternative packaging formats with low greenhouse gas emissions, shipping wine in bulk instead of bottle, using boat or rail instead of road transport – all have an impact.

Natural cork closures are part of the solution. Produced from a renewable biological source they take low energy to produce. Cork oak forests help to protect against wildfires, encourage biodiversity, and sequester carbon. In the end, it seems a sensible choice for the wine industry, and at least one positive step in the struggle for sustainability and the battle to combat climate change.

CORK FACTS:

  • Cork is a perfect balance between environmental preservation and sustainable development. As a foraged and not cultivated material, cork bark is a 100% renewable natural resource.
  • The cork oak forest is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots and can retain 14,000,000 tons of CO2 per year. It is estimated that for every ton of cork produced, cork oak forests capture 73 tons of CO2. The harvesting of cork does not damage but improves the health of the cork tree. After the harvest, the bark regenerates for the next 9 years until the next harvest, while continuously removing CO2 from the atmosphere. A single tree can be harvested up to 20 times and capture 20 tons of CO2 over its 200-plus-year lifetime.
  • A new study by the Cork Quality Council (CQC), which evaluated the life cycle assessment of the three major closure types found that an average wine cork has a negative carbon footprint of -5 grams. But the net amount is -276 grams per cork when the biogenic carbon cycle of the cork oak forests is taken into account, as is specifically allowed by EU Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules based on Life Cycle Assessment standards established by the UN.
  • The net effect of producing 1,000 natural wine corks is that you remove around 250 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere, making it the most sustainable closure for eco-conscious wine drinkers.
  • Compared to others, plastic closures take 9 times more greenhouse gas emissions to produce, while aluminum screw caps take 24 times the emissions to produce than natural cork. Both Aluminum and plastic closures take four times the non-renewable energy to produce, compared to natural cork stoppers.
  • Until now, only the natural cork stopper has been able to provide this perfect balance, allowing for the consistent, slow oxygen transfer to enable the correct evolution of wine and the formation of tertiary-aged characters.

Jane Masters, MW, Independent Wine Consultant, Mastering Wine Institute of Masters of Wine, Founder Member Sustainability Committee

Jane Masters is an independent Wine Business Consultant, Master of Wine, Oenologist, and an MBA from the London Business School. She has extensive experience in the international wine trade and a strong interest in building sustainability into wine business’ strategy working with a range of international clients.

She has been actively involved in the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine as a member of its governing council and served as Chairman 2016-18. Currently, she is a founding member of the Institute’s Sustainability Committee and organizes the IMW Sustainability webinar series.

Jane originally trained as a winemaker at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux and worked in wine production in France followed by 13 years in the wine buying team at Marks & Spencer ultimately running the Wine & Drinks Category. She has been working as an independent consultant Mastering Wine for over fifteen years.

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