A brewing storm
As coffee increasingly becomes an irreplaceable part of our lives and global demand is at its record high, coffee production is stagnating. The reason? Climate change.
Climate change is projected to halve the land suitable for coffee production by 2050, and to cause the extinction of wild coffee by 2080. Temperature will be too high for coffee plants to grow, drought will kill them, and excessive rainfall will facilitate the proliferation of the fungus responsible for the number one coffee disease worldwide, the so called “coffee rust.” These effects will be especially challenging to mitigate as approximately 70 percent of all cultivated coffee around the world consists of only one variety, the most sensitive to climate change and diseases: Arabica.
The impact on the entire coffee supply chain will be consistent: customers will face supply shortages and price increase, while many coffee producers will be pushed out of the market. Most importantly, climate change is expected to highly impact over 120 million people spread around more than 70 countries who today rely on the coffee value chain for their livelihoods.
In this scenario, Illy, a major Italian coffee producer overseeing the entire supply chain from the fields through to the finished product, has recognized the problem and is willing to act on it. “We predict that we will need twice as much as coffee at least – more probably three times as much – by the end of the century, with less than 50 percent of the land available”, said Andrea Illy, the company CEO, at the 2016 World Economic Forum.
An Italian approach to tackling climate change in the coffee industry
Illy is reducing its footprint from the plantations through to our cup of coffee as part of “Planet20”, its carbon footprint project. Illy’s goal is to develop a system that can be shared by all coffee producers to neutralize the climate impact of the industry. It is based on four key pillars:
- Responsible supply chain processes: Illy monitors not only its suppliers, but also its suppliers’ suppliers and requires them to comply with strict standards, concerning soil utilization, water usage, and waste management.
- Environmentally sound cultivation practices: Illy works with local farmers to implement best practices to reduce environmental impact, e.g. minimizing water usage.
- Ultra-low emission facilities: the electricity used in the Italian HQ and roasting facility comes entirely from renewable sources, the heat produced during roasting is used to warm the facility, and a purification chamber is used to minimize the amount of coffee dust released into the atmosphere.
- Reduced packaging carbon footprint: Illy has launched a new capsules packaging and a new ground coffee soft refill-pack, both using less material than the traditional packages. 
When it comes to adaptation strategies, Illy’s initiatives focus on:
- New resistant cultivars: Illy has partnered with Lavazza, its main Italian competitor, and some Italian Universities to sequence for the first time the Arabica genome. This is the first step towards developing new cultivars that are more resistant to the effects of climate change.
- Alert system to detect and prevent the diffusion of the “coffee rust”: Illy is partnering with CIRAD, a public research institution specializing in agricultural research, to tackle the disease in Central America.
- Migrate production areas: Illy is aware of the necessity to relocate part of the production to escape increasingly warm climates.
- “Global Arabica Plan”: Illy’s top management envisions for the future of the coffee industry a public-private partnership for fund raising, knowledge transfer and coordination, and has presented this project at the International Coffee Organization.
Opportunities and challenges lying ahead
Going forward, Illy could raise consumers’ awareness on the topic and give higher visibility of its sustainability strategy to the final customer through ad hoc campaigns. For example, Illy could incentivize consumers on using refills and actively collect used packages for recycling purposes.
Another possible initiative would be to increase the use of the Robusta coffee variety, which is more resilient than Arabica towards changing weather conditions and would therefore guarantee a higher coffee supply at least in the short term, while Illy research efforts focus on developing a more resistant variety of Arabica.
So far, Illy has been playing a leading role in introducing sustainable innovations in the coffee industry and in being an advocate for a collaborative approach in tackling climate change. But some crucial issues remain unsolved.
How to preserve volume production and at the same time safeguard the well-being of the local communities? With the increasing pressure of migrating production away from current lands, it is uncertain how small coffee farmers will be preserved. And finally, will this expansion towards more favorable lands come at the expense of tropical forests, hence accelerating global warming?
 United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. “Coffee: World Markets and Trade.” June 2017. https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/coffee.pdf
 The climate Institute. “A Brewing Storm: The climate change risks to coffee.” September 2016. http://fairtrade.com.au/~/media/fairtrade%20australasia/files/resources%20for%20pages%20-%20reports%20standards%20and%20policies/tci_a_brewing_storm_final_24082016_web.pdf
 The American Phytopathological Society. “Plant Disease Lessons”. https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/lessons/fungi/basidiomycetes/pages/coffeerust.aspx, accessed November 2017.
 Andrea Illy, interviewed by Anmar Frangoul (CNBC) at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos. “Climate change grinding down coffee: Illy CEO.” January 22, 2016. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/01/22/climate-change-affecting-coffee-illy-ceo.html
 Illy. “Planet20.” http://www.illy.com/wps/wcm/connect/en/landing_pages/planet20/planet20, accessed November 2017.
 Illy. “Illy Value Report.” 2016. http://valuereport.illy.com/pdf/BILANCIO_illy_ECONOMICO.pdf
 International Coffee Organization. “Documents.” 2016. http://www.ico.org/documents/cy2016-17/Presentations/pscb-global-arabica-plan-illy.pdf