Coffee & climate change, a round-up story

This coffee farmer cultivates a small plot and she harvests around 10 kilos per day. Photo: Graham Holliday

Every year, we drink some 400 billion cups of coffee around the world, making coffee the most widely traded agricultural commodity of the tropics. Coffee is produced by around 25 million producers, around 70% of whom are smallholder farmers directly dependent on coffee for their livelihoods.

This means that from production to commercialization and consumption, coffee affects many social and environmental realms. Like all agriculture, it also affects and is affected by climate change. This was the focus of the recent Sustainable Coffee Conference, Climate and Coffee: The heat is on!, which brought together diverse stakeholders including businesses, industry bodies, government agencies, civil society and the research community to identify the key strategies that are needed to enable the sector to adapt to the changing climate.


The Coffee Barometer, a biannual overview of developments in the industry, which was launched at the conference, notes that historical issues faced by the sector including declining productivity, terms of trade, and price volatility are compounded by climate change. Coffee cultivation is under threat in countries as diverse as Brazil, Honduras, Uganda, and Vietnam, where the area suitable for cultivation will decrease substantially as soon as 2020. This makes building resilience to increasing climate variability is the most significant challenge facing coffee farmers.

Coffee’s contribution to climate change

As a crop, coffee has been hard hit by climate change but at the same time, coffee cultivation continues to contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that coffee is largely produced on farming communities in tropical countries and predominantly sold in coffee shops in Europe and North America means transportation alone gives coffee a high carbon footprint. In addition, the high demand for high-quality ‘fully-washed’ coffee, a methane emitting process, contributes further to coffee’s share of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the expansion of land under coffee cultivation and the move from shade-grown coffee systems to full-sun plantations acts as a driver for deforestation - leading to the loss of carbon normally sequestered in trees.

agroforestry systems compared to systems without incorporating trees, contribute to additional ecosystem services such as biodiversity, and are thought to improve livelihood benefits (e.g. fruits and firewood from shade trees). Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

However, researchers have recently found that climate-friendly coffee production is achievable and beneficial for farmers.

Read: keys to climate-friendly coffee production.

The traditional coffee growing regions are shrinking

In Mexico and Central America, coffee is the backbone of thousands of families’ livelihoods and contributes significantly to countries’ agricultural economies. For example, in Nicaragua and Honduras, two of the region’s poorest countries, coffee brings in a fifth to a quarter of export revenues.

Read: Building a climate change adaptation strategy in Nicaragua

To sustain the supply of coffee and the livelihoods of coffee farmers, participants in the global coffee supply chain need to know where coffee will grow in the future and how the suitability of these areas will change over time.

‘Coffee trees are fussy and will produce their best beans at high altitudes in a tropical climate where the temperatures are stable and the soil is rich’ writes Neno.

The effects of climate change, i.e. increasing temperatures and altered rainfall patterns, will render the land of many smallholder farmers unsuitable for growing coffee, which will affect a number of vulnerable coffee growing families, who currently lack the capacity to adapt to new conditions. Arabica’s magic skin is an example of how climate change is shrinking the traditional coffee growing regions.

CCAFS in collaboration with CIAT developed a series of short films - Two Degrees Up  that look at what a two-degree Celsius increase in average temperature – widely expected by 2050 – could mean for coffee farmers. 

What does a climate-smart coffee production system look like?

The coffee supply chain needs to develop appropriate site-specific mitigation and adaptation strategies for both the short and the long term, to guarantee coffee supply as well as support improved livelihoods for rural communities. Intercropping is a good example of how farmers can make good use of space in densely populated areas as in the case of intercropping banana and coffee in Uganda. Despite common belief that full-sun grown coffee creates higher yields, trees can act as a form of crop protection by buffering climate extremes such as heavy winds, rainfall and temperature increases while at the same time sequestering carbon. Furthermore, compared to systems without incorporating trees, agroforestry systems contribute to additional ecosystem benefits such as biodiversity.

Read: When Growing Coffee Conserves Biodiversity

Both these strategies are described further in CIAT’s video, Climate- Smart Coffee:

Learn More

To learn more about coffee and climate change, visit the Sustainable Coffee Conference website where you can access the Coffee Barometer Report and other related content.

To learn more about the CCAFS and CIAT research which led to a USD 24 million to help coffee and cocoa farmers adapt to changes in climate in Nicaragua, click here.

Imogen Stuart is a student assistant at the CCAFS Coordinating Unit focusing on communications, social media and web content management. She holds a Bachelor in Marketing from Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently persuing a second Bacehlor Degree in Global Nutrition and Health at Professionshøjskolen Metropol.