The carbon footprint of drinking

As someone who rarely drinks, I am perpetually perplexed by the propensity of the British to drink alcohol in quantities that are clearly not good for them. A recent survey of 120,000 individuals in 36 countries showed that Brits reported to get drunk on average 51.1 times per year, or almost once per week – the highest number of any country in the survey. Brits also sought emergency treatment after drinking very frequently, placing second only behind Australians. 

As one stand-up comedian once put it: “In the US, I am an alcoholic. In Canada, I am a drinker. In the UK, I am a regular fellow. And in Ireland, I am a pussy”.

As far as I am concerned, I don’t care if Brits kill their brain cells with unhealthy levels of alcohol as long as they don’t become aggressive and start a brawl. But the funny thing is that so many young people, who otherwise are concerned about the environment and climate change get drunk so often. Don’t they know that drinking is bad for the environment (and I am not talking about the amount of “human fertilizer” that is distributed by drunk people on the streets and behind bushes)?

A study by the Food Climate Research Network and the University of Surrey in 2007 estimated the CO2 footprint of a glass of beer, wine or spirit drunk in the UK. As our chart shows, drinking a double shot of gin or vodka is the equivalent of driving your car for one kilometre. Drinking a pint of beer is the equivalent of driving your car 2.5 km or 1.5 miles. According to Drinkaware, the average Brit drinks 22 units of alcohol per week, the equivalent of 8.5 pints of beer, 7.4 glasses of wine or 6 double shots gin. This means that the average Brit creates the same amount of CO2 from drinking alcohol as driving between 6km and 21km in a car. Puts a whole new perspective on the term “drinking and driving”.

But in all earnestness, there are simple changes that we all can make to drink “environmentally friendly”:

  • First, stop drinking imported alcohol. Most wine drunk in the UK comes from Australia and while I would never go as far as to drink British wine (That stuff, unlike the emerging English wines grown in Kent and other areas of the UK, is about the cheapest and worst form of alcohol that ever called itself “wine”). Instead of wine from the Southern hemisphere or the US, which has been transported to the UK over long distances, you might want to stay with French wines that have a lower CO2 footprint thanks to a shorter transport.

  • Similarly, in case of beer you want to drink local beers. That does not mean craft beers, but beer produced locally.

  • Also, the production of glass bottles is very CO2 intensive, so drink beer from tap rather than a bottle. The pint of ale from your local brewery is as good as the imported lager from Italy and much less damaging to the environment.

  • And finally, try drinking more cocktails. They are more environmentally friendly than beer as long as they don’t contain juices from exotic fruits that have been transported over long distances. 

If you follow these steps you can not only get drunk, but be smug about how you care for the planet while you get wasted. Of course, I will be standing next to you in the pub and with a smug face telling you that drinking less would be even better for the planet…

Estimated CO2 emissions

Source: Food Climate Research Network.