Neat work as whisky industry steps up green revolution

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For centuries, the water of life has been crafted using just three ingredients with time-honoured and sometimes mysterious methods to create the perfect dram.

Now, more than 500 years since aqua vitae distillation was first noted in Scottish exchequer rolls, the Scotch whisky industry has unveiled ambitious new environmental targets which will impact on almost every element of production and help turn the dram in our glass green.

The new Sustainability Strategy, launching today (MONDAY) to coincide with Burn’s Night celebrations, commits the sector to hitting net-zero emissions across its operations by 2040.

The plan puts the sector ten years ahead of the UK Government’s net-zero target, with the aim of dramatically reducing the environmental impact of Scotland’s national drink.

It includes targets for a switch from fossil fuel energy to renewable alternatives, and a pledge to play an active role in conserving and restoring Scotland’s peatlands by 2035.

The sector, which accounts for 1% of peat extracted across the UK, says it will deliver a new Peat Action Plan later this year and is working with maltsters on how changes to peat use during whisky production may impact flavour profiles.

The strategy also includes a commitment that all new packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. That raises the dilemma of how producers can meet consumers’ expectations for a high end, luxury product while using recycled glass and packaging.

There is also a pledge to work with agricultural partners to explore how barley and other cereals used for Scotch Whisky production can be developed to produce more spirit with fewer chemicals while coping with the challenges of climate change.

As well as a significant reduction in agricultural emissions, the strategy also plans to guide the sector towards more efficient use of water.

The new vision replaces the Scotch Whisky Association’s previous strategy developed in 2009.

Although progress had made towards meeting its initial goals, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third, it’s said that it had become clear that the sector needed to move faster and further to achieve significant results.

Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “Scotch has been produced for 500 years and we want to ensure that it is being produced for generations to come.

“The Scotch Whisky industry’s new Sustainability Strategy is both ambitious and achievable. A huge amount of work has gone into its development and is now going into its implementation.

“All of this is close to distillers’ hearts because we know we must protect the natural environment.”

The new strategy commits the industry to working collaboratively with supply chain partners and government towards a collective goal of a sustainable dram, from grain to glass.

The industry’s original environment strategy was the first of its kind to cover an entire sector. Since then, the industry is said to have made significant progress against its original targets, including a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 28% of primary energy use from non-fossil fuel sources, 22% improvement in water use efficiency in production, and just 1% of waste heading to landfill.

Industry leaders have pointed to ground-breaking environmental initiatives led by distillery businesses, including a project launched by Glenmorangie distillery to restore extinct oyster reefs in Dornoch Firth.

The oysters work alongside the plant’s anaerobic digester, ensuring effluent from the distillery is cleaned.

Other projects already underway include the use of protein from pot ale waste for fish feed, partnerships to improve wetland areas, bio-refineries within distilleries which use by-products to create new raw materials for other sectors, and the use of hydrogen as a power source.

In some cases, distilleries are capturing the energy stored in water heated during the distillation process to fuel other areas of production.

Ms Betts said the new strategy would showcase Scottish efforts towards tackling climate change to COP26 delegates later this year.

“The eyes of the world will be on Scotland, and on ours and others’ efforts to reverse the damaging impacts of climate change. We are looking forward to showcasing our industry’s contribution to global efforts to ensure our generation can arrest climate change and secure the future of our planet,” she added.

Terry A’Hearn, CEO of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) welcomed the new strategy, and said: “The Scotch Whisky industry is already among the most environmentally compliant sectors that we regulate. Amid a climate crisis when industries need to act to protect the natural environment, this new Sustainability Strategy demonstrates the commitment of the Scotch Whisky industry to maintain its position as an environmental leader, containing ambitious targets that will help to ensure a green future for Scotch Whisky producers large and small.”

Environment and Climate Change Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, also welcomed the strategy. She said: “Whisky production is part of our industrial and cultural landscape and is a key part of our identity as a nation. It is vital for prosperity and employment, especially in rural and island communities.

“Given the huge burden that the pandemic continues to place on all our activities, it is imperative that we deepen collaboration between government, industry and wider society to deliver our green recovery and I am confident that this strategy will support the association’s members to continue to aim high, to plan for the long-term and help become a net-zero nation.”

Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack said: “This initiative will work towards a sustainable future for Scotch Whisky and tackling climate change – the biggest challenge of our time. The spirits industry is a key Scottish sector and this strategy is an excellent example of industry playing a part in the green industrial revolution.”

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