What's the carbon footprint of sugar?
Sweet sugar can be found in almost everything and sugar comes in a variety of forms. But, we rarely eat sugar on its own, meaning that it can be difficult to really know the impact it has on the carbon footprint of a meal or snacks.
Carbon Footprint of Sugar
One bag of white cane sugar (1kg) produces 660g CO₂e*
equivalent to charging 80 smartphones
Of course, most people don’t eat 1 kg of sugar in one sitting...
One 1 tablespoon of white cane sugar produces 5g CO₂e*
60% more than a tablespoon of beet sugar
38% less than a tablespoon of maple syrup
76% less than a tablespoon of honey
*CO₂e means carbon dioxide equivalent and measures total greenhouse gases
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Where does sugar come from?
Sugar comes from a lot of different places and can be made from both sugar canes and sugar beets.
While sugar cane is typically grown in tropical climates with warm, wet weather, like Brazil, Thailand, and South Africa, sugar beet is predominantly produced in Europe. In fact, Europe produces around 50% of the world’s sugar beet.
This is what makes sugar so interesting. It's one of those unique food items that can be produced all around the world, meaning that it can technically always be Veggie, Seasonal & Local!
But here’s the catch…beet sugar only represents 20% of the world’s sugar production. Although Europe has the ability to produce sugar locally, large quantities of raw sugar cane need to be imported to meet consumer demand.
Raw sugar cane is then processed in refining plants here in Europe and transported to different countries.
Can you grow sugar in the UK?
Yes! Currently, the climate in the East Midlands and the East of England is ideal for growing sugar beet.
In 2019-2020, the United Kingdom produced roughly 12 tons of sugar from sugar beets per hectare.
Greenhouse gas emissions from sugar production
Life cycle assessments (LCAs) help us understand which greenhouse gases are released and the overall carbon footprint of sugar.
The majority of greenhouse gases from sugar cane production come from the farming stage, particularly from a practice known as residue burning.
Residue burning is when leftover crops are burnt to clear the land. Farmers in developing countries often use this method because it is the fastest and cheapest way of removing waste and preparing the land for more crops.
Unfortunately, residue burning reduces soil quality and releases three main greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄), and nitrous oxide (N₂O).
Fertilisers, used to increase sugar cane crop yields, and the running of farm machinery also contribute to the release of greenhouse gases while growing sugar cane.
Are there other ways sugar impacts the environment?
Sugar cane is often criticised for its environmental impact. Limited regulations, or at least low adherence to the laws in place, is common in sugar cane growth.
This has caused high levels of pollution in water bodies, such as lakes and rivers, located close to sugar farms. Silt and fertiliser residue is washed down from farms and harm aquatic life. The damage water quality and potentially harm humans and animals who rely on the water.
The processing of sugar adds to the problem, too. Large-scale sugar mills produce wastewater and solid waste, like sludge and plant matter, that impacts the environment.
Massive amounts of waste are washed from mills into nearby lakes, streams and rivers. As the waste decomposes, it absorbs available oxygen in the water and leading to widespread fish kills and ecosystem destruction.
Sugar and People
Beyond its impact on the climate, sugar brings about more social issues.
Conflict over sugar production is sadly common. Sugar cane is mainly grown in low-income countries. Sugar is in high demand worldwide, and there is a lot of competition for controlling the sugar market.
Human rights for those working in the fields are not always respected in order to increase profit. Low rates of pay, lack of breaks, accidents and dehydration are issues for people in the supply chain. So, it is important to pay attention to the different certifications on sugar packets, like Fairtrade.
Health issues are widely associated with sugar. Many of us are aware that sugar is responsible for causing chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and chronic inflammation. But in the supply chain, residue burning of sugar cane releases fine particulates and carbon monoxide which cause breathing issues and disease for field workers.
Tips for choosing more environmentally-friendly sugar
Studies have shown that beet sugar produces a lot less CO₂ than cane sugar. Beet sugar can also be grown and processed in the UK, reducing the food miles needed for transport to your home.
Beet sugar requires less land and water than sugar cane and can be considered a more environmentally-friendly option for sweetening your diet. Beet sugar is also associated with less health risk to workers too, as fewer particles are produced compared to cane sugar.
Instead of refined sugar, you could get your sweet fix from alternative natural sources, like fruits and maple syrup.
Diversity in your diet is key for our planetary and individual health.
When compared directly, honey has a significantly higher carbon footprint than beet sugar. Swapping between honey and maple syrup from time to time can still be a good alternative to adding sugar when used in small quantities.
Sustainable recipes and substitutes for sugar