Climate change is real. And it is affecting tea. We’re sure it comes as no surprise to our customers and visitors that Arbor Teas believes in the importance of individuals and businesses working together to reduce our negative impact on the environment and increase our positive impact. 

Within the tea industry, there are several issues that are specifically related to environmental sustainability and climate change. We believe the top 3 issues are: Global Warming; Water; and Transportation.

Global Warming and the Tea Industry

Early evidence (such as that identified by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes, or the IPCC) suggests that the effects of global warming are likely to have very serious impacts on the world's ability to keep growing great tea (not to mention a long list of other agricultural products). While it's not as though tea production will come to a screeching halt tomorrow, this certainly isn't good news.

Global Warming's Impact on Tea-Growing Regions
There is a substantial and growing body of evidence supporting the fact that atmospheric temperatures are on the rise worldwide. Unfortunately, a majority of the available data is skewed towards already developed nations. Since much of the world's tea production takes place in the developing world, there is less scientific data to evaluate when considering global warming's potential impacts. However, anecdotal evidence from growers suggests that the tea-growing world is experiencing the same climate trends as have been identified by scientists elsewhere.

From practically all corners of the tea-producing world, tea growers are reporting a variety of climate-related hardships of growing frequency and intensity that are impacting their ability to produce quality tea. Here are a few examples:

  • Drought in China leaving low-lying plants covered in dust, blocking crucial sunshine
  • Intense rainfall contributing to erosion of slopes and loss of plantings in India
  • Unprecedented frost in Rwanda, causing loss of 70% of leaves
  • Erratic rainfall in Kenya, with drought occurring twice as frequently
  • Higher temperatures in China contributing to increased pest populations

And the news won’t get much better should global warming continue to advance. The most recent report of the IPCC identifies a long list of other likely impacts of global climate change, many of which will most certainly impact the tea industry. These include:

  • Enlargement of glacial lakes (reducing growing area)
  • Increasing ground instability in permafrost regions and rock avalanches in mountain regions
  • Earlier and increased runoff in glacial- and snow-fed rivers and streams
  • Warming of lakes and rivers
  • Reduction in agricultural production in dry and tropic regions (with even small temperature increases)

Clearly, any of the events described above would put a serious damper on tea production (whether it be through loss of tea bushes, reduced arable land, lower quality of manufactured leaves, etc.). But in addition to all of this, simple increases in temperature can have further impacts on tea growing. This shouldn't come as a surprise to the serious farmers or gardeners, but the growth and development of tea plants are genetically linked to certain times of year and weather conditions, which are often triggered by changes in temperature. Increased temperatures can cause new leaves to sprout too early, only to be damaged by early morning frosts.

To make matters worse, decreases in productivity that may be attributable to climate change often force planters to cut down or burn forested areas to make way for additional tea fields, which only stands to exacerbate the climate change problem.

In a 2015 report released by the United Nations FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and the Working Group on Climate Change several adaptations were recommended to reduce the impact of climate change on tea cultivation. Interestingly, many of the recommendations included techniques that are already promoted in organic agriculture production and a switch to organic cultivation itself:

  • Planting drought and stress tolerant tea cultivars
  • Diversifying production, including changing low-yielding tea land from tea to other crops that can thrive in poor soil and in tea-growing areas
  • Intercropping tea with other tree crops, such as rubber, and/or other food crops. Shade trees provide the dual benefit of protecting the tea plants As the tree matures, it can be used for fuel to dry the tea. Food crops, on the other hand, provide food and/or income to the farmer. Soil could also be improved by intercropping with nitrogen-fixing crops, such as beans. Non-nitrogen-fixing crops, such as cassava, however, absorb nutrients from the soil and would contribute to soil deterioration
  • Organic cultivation
  • Water conservation through efficient artificial irrigation and drainage systems, as well as water harvesting

With these recommendations at the forefront of our mind, Arbor Teas is even that much more committed to supporting organic agriculture.

What Global Warming Will Mean For Tea Lovers
Some countries (Japan in particular) have begun devising plans to address the challenges of tea production in the face of climate change. And while Japan may actually have the resources and technological wherewithal to adapt their tea growing industry to a warmer climate, the same may not be said for other locales. At the end of the day, continued global warming will make growing quality teas harder and more expensive. Both the quality and quantity of production will be reduced (or at least become more erratic), and thanks to the supply-and-demand curve, this will mean higher tea prices for the consumer.

There is Hope
Global warming is an urgent, but solvable problem. Every small step counts and helps. From composting, to trying out our eco brewing tips to getting involved in local environmental groups, global warming will take all of us to solve.

In the words of the Rodale Institute: “There is hope right beneath our feet. The solution is radically simple: Organic Farming. Not business as usual farming. But rather, farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health, and ecosystem health matters. Farming in a way that restores our soil’s natural ability to hold carbon.” SUPPORT ORGANIC FARMING AND FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE!

Water and the Tea Industry

Of the many steps we can take to lead more sustainable lives, it turns out that drinking tea is one of them. The carbon footprint of goods and services has come to dominate the conversation of reducing the environmental impact of what we buy, eat and use in our daily lives. Because of this, we often forget about other environmental criteria such as the water footprint. Tea is considered a rainwater plant. Meaning that it is grown with the use of rainfall only and does not require irrigation water or processing water. As a result, it has a very small water footprint. This is great news for those wanting to reduce their water footprint. But, it also means that tea is more susceptible to variations in rainfall due to climate change. Droughts in Kenya and heavier than usual rainfall in China, will require the agricultural community to adjust yield expectations and harvest calendars.

There is Hope
In terms of a caffeine habit, tea may be the way to go. According to the publication "The World's Water", it turns out that tea has a much smaller water footprint than its caffeinated rival coffee, requiring as little as one-fifth to one-tenth as much water! This substantial difference is due in large part to the incredible thirst of the coffee tree in producing the cherries that coffee is made from, compared to the relatively water-efficient tea bush. In fact, among all agricultural products, coffee is responsible for the greatest amount of "virtual" movement of water across the globe (from growing areas to consumption areas) tied up in the form of coffee beans.

Additionally, according to a 2015 life cycle analysis of Darjeeling tea, it turns out that the energy required to simply heat up the water to brew your tea rivals ALL the energy (serving for serving) it takes to grow, manufacture, and deliver it to you in the first place. So, being careful not to boil more water than you need can make a big impact! For other eco-brewing tips check out our eco-tips page.

Shipping and the Tea Industry

Most tea comes a long way to end up in our kitchens in North America. When it arrives in the Arbor Teas warehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it’s already had a long journey. It then departs on another journey to reach our customers’ homes! All this travel comes with a cost: it takes lots of energy and fuel to move this tea. There is a growing movement in the USA to eat local. This includes eating foods that are grown within a certain distance (or foodshed). But, tea is not indigenous to North America, and while there is a growing movement to farm tea in the US (particularly in Hawaii) it will not satisfy our thirst for tea yet! So, what are the best options to ship tea from abroad? Below we go through the different ways that products can travel, and how they affect our environment.

Fossil Fuels: What & How
We use biologically-based fossil fuels to power most of our locomotive machineries. Fossil fuels are naturally made from the anaerobic decomposition of dead animals. In fact, the ones we use today are typically millions of years old (some fossils exceeding 650 million)! When animals and plants decompose, they release carbon into the atmosphere at an incredibly slow rate. However, when fossil fuels are burned in order to make fuel energy, the carbon from the decomposing organisms are released at a much higher rate. So, the amount of carbon that should have been released over the span of tens of millions of years is ultimately released in the span of a few hundred years. This extreme release of carbon as carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses drives the greenhouse effect responsible for climate change.

Air Freight
Tons of cargo is shipped via airplane everyday. Unfortunately, planes require a lot of fuel to keep them up in the air. Plane fuel consumption depends on the size and weight of the aircraft as well the altitude and duration of the flight. When you consider all these factors, a plane that flies internationally, such as the Boeing 747, may burn approximately one gallon of fuel every second. These fuels used to power the plane are responsible for the plane’s CO2 emissions. Researchers now believe that in 2025, aviation CO2 emission could reach 1.5 billion tons! While planes are very helpful in facilitating world-wide commerce and trade they may not be the most eco-friendly option (particularly transoceanic transportation).

Railroad Freight
Railroad bound locomotives are still actively used in the movement of cargo and goods. Train fuel consumption is based on the train’s maximum speed and stopping patterns. A higher speed is directly related to more fuel usage. Also, a greater number of stops a train has along the way are also directly related to more fuel usage. This is because there is a greater input of fuel to get the initial motion of the train. Train transportation is considered to be one of the more efficient ways of shipping. On average, a train emits only 0.1 kg of CO2 per ton mile compared to the 0.81 kg of CO2 per ton mile of air cargo emissions.**

Truck Freight
Even though most trucks use diesel, they are not exempt from the growing number of harmful CO2 emissions into our environment. Vehicle transportation in general constituted about 27% of the United States total greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. Between 1990 and 2003, CO2 emissions increased by 20%, despite the many automotive improvements to increase fuel efficiency and decrease CO2 emissions. However, trucks emit less CO2 than cars per pound of vehicle mass. Trucks are also considered a better shipping alternative to airplanes emitting fewer CO2 per ton mile.

Sea Freight
Ninety percent of international trade travels by ship. And that comes with a heavy impact on the environment. The shipping industry’s carbon emissions currently account for 3-4% of global emissions and are expected to triple by 2050 if current practices continue unchanged. But, sea freight still emits the fewest CO2 per ton mile for freight transport and is considered the most sustainable option for now. Industry groups like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative are working to improve sea freight sustainability and it mainstream.

There is Hope
As climate change becomes more and more evident, it is up to us to take an active role in decreasing CO2 emissions and eliminating our individual carbon footprints. With this role in mind, Arbor Teas prioritizes sea freight and ground transportation whenever possible. Additionally, we work with to offset all of our shipments, including both inbound to our facility and outbound to our customers. We also believe that knowing your options and how they affect the environment makes a big difference.

Wanna Read More About Tea and Climate Change?

Climate change is affecting the growing and harvesting of tea” by Leschin-Hoar, Clare; (October 20, 2016);

Changing monsoon patterns, more rain contribute to lower tea yield in Chinese provinces” by Collins, Patrick; (April 8, 2016);

The Future of Tea Looks Bleak, Thanks to Climate Change” by Wei, Clarissa; (July 8, 2016);

Climate Change Poses a Brewing Problem for Tea” by Kahn, Brain; (June 4, 2015);

Effects of Extreme Climate Events on Tea (Camellia sinensis) Functional Quality Validate Indigenous Farmer Knowledge and Sensory Preferences in Tropical China” Ahmed S et al. (2014); PLoS ONE 9(10): e109126.

“Sustainability Trends in the Container Shipping Industry A Future Trends Research Summary” by Pruzan-Jorgensen, Peder Michael et al; (September 2010);

Clean Cargo Working Group Progress Report 2015” by Farrag-Thibault, Angie et al. (August 2015):

Environmental Factors and Intermodal Freight Transportation: Analysis of the Decision Bases in the Case of Spanish Motorways of the Sea” byÁngel López-Navarro, Miguel; Sustainability; (2014); 6, 1544-1566.

Sustainable Shipping Initiative Working to Take the Environmental Sting Out of 'Sea Miles'” by Armstrong, Louise et al. (June 21, 2013); 

Water Footprint Network:

"State of Sustainability Initiatives: Tea Market 2014" by State of Sustainability Initiatives; (2014);