You might think that diesel ferries and belching sheep would surpass Scotch whisky distilleries in greenhouse gas (GHG) total emissions, right?
Producing Scotch whisky is really energy intensive, with a whole lot of carbon spewing and peat burning. If the distilleries’ multinational conglomerate owners are anything like the rest of the miserly corporate world, they’re probably balking at suggestions that they adapt to a zero emissions future, right?
It seems that the owners of the 140 distilleries in Scotland have pledged, without government intervention, to recreate their industry into net zero operations by 2040. If it happens, this milestone will have been achieved a full decade earlier than the UK as a whole and 5 years earlier than Scotland. They can do so because Scotland’s distilleries are quite profitable; Scotch whisky is the United Kingdom’s single largest food and drink export, with annual sales valued at $7.5 billion in 2022. With such a cushion, an experimental Scotch whisky production shift to renewables is less threatening than in other industries.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is onboard, too. It wants consumers to imagine a future when the old time distilleries turn away from fossil fuels and toward energy generated by wind, wood chips, ocean tides, and 21st-century green hydrogen.
According to the 2019 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, natural resource extraction and processing comprise 50% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and account for up to 90% of biodiversity loss. Current benchmarks in distilled spirit production and technologies to help drive decarbonization available now and in the future play an important role in Scottish whisky and other distilleries’ production and affect on biodiversity.
The environmental impact of distilled spirits is as variable as the range of spirits themselves — much is dependent on the processes and energy sources in place and available at the distillery.
The Problem with Peat in Scotch Whisky
Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing, according to the International Peatland Society. The muck forms in Scotland’s bogs, when layer after layer of dead vegetation resists decay and compresses into fuel, which is burned during scotch distillation. The production of organic matter exceeds its decomposition, which results in a net accumulation of peat.
Peat helps to keep our planet relatively cool, as all that muck — which is particularly common across the Arctic — traps a tremendous amount of carbon that would otherwise heat the atmosphere.
Across the centuries, peat has been the prominent note of Scotch whisky, imbuing them with a smoky flavor. All major brands retain the peat element in their recipes.
Peatlands store vast amounts of carbon and act as a natural carbon sink, making them ideal for helping to tackle climate change. The company behind the Laphroaig and Bowmore whisky brands has said the island home of those Scottish distilleries will likely be next in line in its ongoing efforts to restore the country’s peatlands.
The Peatlands Water Sanctuary (PWS) initiative is working towards the conservation of the equivalent amount of peat used annually to make its single Islay malts.
A Circular Economy Model of Scotch Whisky Production
By 2016, the Scottish government recognized that the opportunities of a more circular economy were fundamental to tackling emissions arising from the consumption of goods and to mitigate climate change. Zero Waste Scotland estimated that, by 2050, a more circular economy could reduce carbon emissions by 11 million tons per year.
The Scottish food and drink sector has real potential to maximize environmental and economic benefits by achieving net zero, bio-energy, and food waste reduction targets. This attitude is due in large part to incentives of renewable energy technologies by UK and Scottish Governments.
Creating Scotch whisky involves a 4-step process of malting, mashing, fermentation, and distillation. In days of yore, energy to heat the kettles came from coal. Today, it’s from natural gas or fuel oil — the oil typically transported by diesel tankers plying the seas and then by diesel trucks moving along narrow farm roads. Annabel Thomas, founder of Nc’nean distillery, told the Washington Post that some kind of fuel has to boil the mash and distill the alcohol. “You can’t get rid of the boiler — like you can’t get rid of the jet engine on an airplane.”
After the 4 primary processes are completed, the Scotch can be put through additional maturation and blending to achieve full flavors.
The Circular Economy (CE) model of production is “a regenerative system in which resource-input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.” The wider impacts from the source of raw materials to make Scotch whisky, including crops and packaging, to the end route of by-products and the transport involved at every stage, certainly need to reduce their carbon pollution. Moreover, carefully planned sustainability pathways that maximize potential CE must also address the cost of local realized benefits versus global mitigation potential.
From Biproducts to Biofuel & Beyond
In 2022, Scotch whisky exports were worth £6.2bn. The industry employed more than 42,000 people, including 10,500 directly in Scotland.
It has reduced its carbon emissions by more than half since 2009, as it has gone from consuming just 2% renewable energy to 39% renewable in 2022. With centuries of tradition behind them, and because it takes over a decade for a Scotch to mature in casks, Scottish distilleries have assumed a long perspective about renewables.
The Scotch whisky industry has tremendous socio-economic importance for the country, so its valuable co-products factor into the bio-electricity/fuel aspect of renewables. Distillery co-products as animal feed has begun to shift to their use in bio-energy production. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) wants producers to funnel the dregs — the byproducts like draff and pot ale — into a virtuous circular economy of fertilizer, animal feed, and biofuel.
Distillation byproducts are only one aspect of the big picture of net zero emissions goals. The SWA supports whisky makers who wisely protect Scotland’s water and consciously recycle their waste.
Distillers are in the process of converting oversized, polluting tourist buses — imperative for whisky-tasting tours — to battery operated vehicles. 30,000 new charging stations that the government has promised by 2030 will make transportation electrification possible.
International energy producers have invested billions of dollars in Scotland’s coastal waters. The vision is for ubiquitous offshore wind farms — near to whisky distillery islands — to pump electricity to land.
Some of the electricity would be used to create commercial green hydrogen, produced via renewables-powered electrolysis or via steam methane reforming (SMR) with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). ScottishPower has begun to build the Cromarty Hydrogen Project, north of Inverness, which will use offshore wind to make green hydrogen on shore, which will be available to a hub of businesses, including the whisky maker Glenmorangie, in an industrial area.
Tidal energy firm Nova Innovation is in the planning process of installing turbines between the islands of Jura and Islay, which are part of the Inner Hebrides. The move will be another example of how marine energy can play a role in the decarbonization of communities and businesses. The idea is that the 3 megawatt (MW) “Oran na Mara” project will reduce the islands’ reliance on fossil fuels by sending renewable electricity to the grid. This electricity will be made available to the whisky distilleries — Islay has nine, while Jura has one — via a direct connection or through the grid.
How the Local Distillers are Working toward Net Zero Emissions
Nc’nean claims net zero carbon emissions in its production up until the point of distribution and is now collaborating with distribution partners to be completely net-zero. The company uses renewable energy to make whisky from organically grown barley. Glass used for Nc’nean bottles is made from post-consumer recycled glass, which has a 40% lower carbon footprint than virgin glass.
The Ardgowan Distillery, partnering with a university and an engineering company, has pledged to be “carbon negative” in its operations by next year, by developing technology to capture all the CO2 in its fermentation process and transforming it into green bio-methane.
At the Glengoyne Distillery, visitors can tour its settling ponds, filled with reeds, designed to clean the wastewater. The maker’s solid waste is now harvested, too, as a biofuel to power 354 nearby homes. They’ve adopted a downstream wetland.
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