Dr Richard Smart calls for carbon capture

Dr. Richard Smart, the renowned viticulturist who now calls himself a ‘carbon conscious’ vine doctor rather than the ‘flying’ vine doctor, looks back at the events of 2020 so far. While coronavirus is very bad, it will eventually go away, but the climate crisis is becoming increasingly critical and calls for urgent action from the wine industry, he argues. He asks us as wine writers to start to hold wineries to environmental account, no matter how green they might first appear, especially as fermentation also foments the climate crisis.

What a crazy and yet momentous year 2020 has turned out to be so far. Accordingly, it will be recorded in history as a ‘tipping point’ year for human society, on a couple of counts.

In early January, the world’s attention was drawn to wildfires (bushfires) in Australia, with plenty of graphic TV images of a continent apparently burning. Scientists assured the nation and the world that the cause was the changing climate, with record high temperatures, a severe drought and abnormal developments in adjacent oceans.

High temperature records were not restricted to Australia. The Northern Hemisphere winter had record high temperatures on land: on Seymour Island, Antarctica, the highest ever temperature of 20.8 C was recorded on 9th February. One wonders what the Northern Hemisphere summer will yet bring.

Meanwhile, an unknown coronavirus had recently escaped from the animal kingdom and was beginning to kill humans in China. It was spread around the world by man, travelling mostly by air and sometimes cruise ships; over the next three months or more the very nature of global society changed. Much of the world is now, or has been, in ‘lockdown’, with people obliged to remain at home, with many losing employment as businesses close. Governments hoping to avoid economic recession are handing out money to individuals and companies, on an unprecedented scale.

Of these two crises, climate change and coronavirus, history tells us that the latter should end sometime soon, as plagues always have done in the past, although the economic impact will remain. Perhaps this is another timely reminder to Homo sapiens, the most intelligent life form on earth, that nature is all powerful, and that we and our complex structures of society can be brought down by one of the simplest life forms on earth.

Of the first crisis, that of climate change, neither history nor early prehistory offers a precedent. Carbon dioxide CO2 and methane CH4, so-called ‘greenhouse gases’, have varied in the earth’s atmosphere in the geological past, and, at high levels have caused warming. These changes were ‘natural’ causes; the present record high levels of atmospheric CO2 are due to man’s activity in burning fossil fuels since the 1800s in general, and since 1950 in particular. These fossil fuels were sequestered in the earth over geological periods of many millions of years, but are being released in much less than say 250 years, so the atmospheric concentration is dramatically increasing. The present geological period is named in advance as the Anthropocene, as being due to man’s activity. How bizarre is that!

The new normal and climate change mitigation

Homo has been sapiens (wise) during the Covid-19 crisis and adjusted to new situations, as is appropriate. Perhaps society will remember some of these adjustments into the future, and question whether so much car and air travel as was common before Covid-19 was really necessary? My point is about the extent to which the Covid-19 lifestyle adjustments have resulted in lower carbon emissions – more than any amount of environmental activism and education has achieved in the past.

It is interesting to think about why the societal changes have been so dramatic and widespread with Covid-19, and yet warnings about the impending climate crisis have been ignored by some governments, and the population at large, for over 30 years. The answer is of course obvious.

On one hand, we have a small group of not so well-known scientists offering warnings of a future crisis, supported by a small but vocal group of environmentalists (and school children!) While some governments may have been sympathetic, some notable exceptions were not, none more outstanding than that of Australia, while the country burnt.

Contrast this, if you will, with the response to coronavirus. Governments slavishly followed the advice of medical scientists, some more quickly than others. And some in the medical fraternity have portfolios in government, or other positions of great influence. (I dare say that climate scientists are very envious of this power!). Add to this the daily pronouncements of politicians, engendering fear in the populace, and legal changes, and there is little doubt of resulting community awareness and response.

Overcoming climate crisis and the role of the wine sector

Experts argue about whether society might tolerate a 1.5 C or 2.0 C average increase by 2050. The preference now is for the lower figure. We should all understand the changes which need to be made, especially in avoiding the use of fossil fuels for electrical energy production, and for transport. The future is with renewable energy.

How can the grape and wine sector help mitigate climate change? While not a large polluter, improvements can be made. Producers could use renewable energy wherever possible. Waste biomass (vineyard prunings, and stalks, skins, seeds and pulp) from winery operations can be used to produce energy, thus avoiding the purchase of fossil-fuel-based grid energy; carbon footprint ‘heavy’ glass bottles can be replaced by more environmentally-friendly packaging like cardboard Tetra Paks, standup pouches, cans and flatter profile PET bottles. And there are other opportunities.

Fermentation also foments climate crisis

Wineries continue to directly pollute the atmosphere with CO2 by not capturing fermentation CO2. Technology exists in Europe to capture these gases; their use however is very limited. Perhaps it is seen as a cost saving by most wineries not to capture fermentation CO2, but rather to continue to treat the atmosphere as a sewer for CO2, just like power stations do, but on a smaller scale. Think of winemakers as environmental vandals, not as celebrities.

Perhaps public outrage may change their minds. What if an environmental protester flew a drone over wineries at mid-vintage, collecting air samples to measure the CO2 content, and released the readings to the popular press. Might not wine consumers and the general public be horrified at this practice?

A possible positive role for wine writers

Do readers care about climate change? Do they understand that if unchecked climate change will literally turn the wine world as we know it upside-down? Can they imagine famous wine regions losing their reputation for superior quality for their best grape varieties? Bordeaux too hot for Cabernet Sauvignon. And Burgundy similarly unsuited for Pinot Noir, and the Barossa Valley for Shiraz etc. Unthinkable.

Effects of climate change on wine quality might be the least of society’s concerns. Droughts, floods, cyclones, rising sea levels and so on will all have an impact, as will also the loss of agricultural land and starvation for an increasing population. Some projections are dire, predicting loss of trade, economic mayhem, mass migration and perhaps even wars fought over dwindling resources.

I am inclined to think that wine consumers will encourage wine producers to be more responsive in climate change mitigation than if the latter are left to their own conscience. There are very few examples of climate crisis concerned wine producers. And this is exactly where wine writers can help, by encouraging wine consumers to respond to efforts of those producers who do care.

Today’s more environmentally-aware consumers will use their purchasing spend to show support and encouragement to deserving producers. And wine writers can help this to happen.

A possible packaging logo, suggesting that wine production is carbon neutral, and also that there was no CO2 release during fermentation, could be adopted. I would like to see such a logo endorsed for carbon conscious producers.

I would add a word of caution. Please do not confuse so-called ‘organic’ and or ‘biodynamic’ grape production with climate mitigation. These practices require more fossil fuel than conventional viticulture, and so contribute more to the climate crisis.

Kiwi wine industry sets climate precedent

While one crisis may be partially passed in its effect by the end of 2020 or thereabouts, another, and the greater one, still hangs over our heads. The climate crisis will however impact our society to a much greater and more permanent extent than Covid-19 has. The good news is that it can be avoided.

The New Zealand wine industry has recently announced a goal of being net carbon zero ahead of the 2050 regulatory deadline. Wine writers should applaud this world first in their columns. Let us raise a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to celebrate the news, and encourage your readers to do the same.



Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Circle of Wine Writers or its members.

For any members that would like to discuss the topic further, Richard Smart can be contacted at [email protected] or via the Editor. He has written a number of articles on the topic of the climate crisis, grapes and wine which he would be pleased to share with any interested readers.