Field Notes from the Porto Conference on Climate Change and Wine

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Sue and I were in Porto earlier this month for the global conference on climate change and wine. The event started with a day and a half of presentations and discussions directed at climate change solutions for the wine industry and then concluded with a half-day summit on climate change more generally.

The highlight of the summit was a presentation by Al Gore, the prominent climate change activist and former U.S. Vice President. Gore’s presentation was intense, focused, and inspiring. Sue called it a “stem-winder” of a speech — it really got the audience worked up.

The conference itself featured speakers from almost all corners of the wine world (Asia was the missing corner, with one non-wine speaker, Afroz Shah, a United Nations Champion of the Earth, from India, and Rajeev Samant, CEO of India’s Sula Vineyards, in the audience).

Herewith are some field notes from the eleven sessions. I recommend Richard Siddle’s report on the conference for additional detail and analysis. Videos of the presentations are being posted on the Climate Change Leadership YouTube.com page.

Ground Hog Day?

In a pre-conference column I wrote about the tragedy of the Groundhog Day syndrome — experts meet to talk about climate change, but it is mainly talk and nothing really gets done. The next meeting is pretty much like the last one, repeating with only minor variations, as the in the popular Bill Murray film.

The Porto gathering promised to break out of the Groundhog Day cycle and offer real solutions; I am happy to say that it generally delivered. Starting with Miguel Torres, we were offered concrete examples of determined companies and leaders who backed their talk with action.

One thing I learned is this: the basic outline for progress on climate change issues is fairly clear. Start with an environmental audit to establish a baseline, set specific quantitative goals to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, evaluate results, then repeat the process. Some of the achievements reported here were startling and show just how much can be accomplished once a serious commitment is made.

You could tell that many actors were still struggling a bit with exactly where to put priorities: Try to make progress everywhere? Or focus on a few big goals, either the ones that would be easiest or cheapest to achieve or perhaps the ones that would have the biggest impact? I do not know what the answer to that question is, but it is better to know what you want to do than to thrash around blindly.

The Porto Protocol

Participants were encouraged to sign the Porto Protocol, a platform created last July in the first iteration of this conference (which featured a keynote by Barack Obama).  Those who sign the protocol commit to doing more in the future than they are doing now and to sharing their methods and results with others. The idea is to create an open source database that will help everyone do more, faster, better.

Interestingly, Sue and I ran into several people who confided that their organizations were having trouble deciding whether to sign up, which was puzzling because each of them has developed a strong program to promote sustainability and confront climate change.

What’s the problem? One colleague said that his organization was already doing more than the protocol currently requires, so there was a concern that they might not get credit for what they have done. No one said it, but I think it is possible that the transparency requirement could also be an issue. If that’s the case, I hope we can get past it. As Adrian Bridge, the CEO of Taylor’s and the driving force behind this initiative, has said, “There is no time, and no need, to reinvent things. If we share our successes and experiences, we will all benefit.” He is certainly right.

Does Climate Change Action Pay?

This is the question that I am often asked about both climate change programs and sustainability measures generally.  The gist is that these programs are costly. Who is going to pay for them?

I do not recall hearing anyone say that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for climate change-friendly wine, although some of us talked at dinner about what could be done to draw consumer attention to wineries that are taking climate change action.

Does that mean that the costs fall like a tax on the wineries who fight climate change (and not on those who don’t)? Yes and no. Some of the defensive costs of mitigating climate change, especially in the vineyard, are going to be unavoidable. Better to treat them as a sunk cost and move on.

Some positive actions have the potential to pay for themselves, at least in part. Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines, told the story of the decision to move to slightly (one ounce) lighter-weight bottles for some of the millions of cases of wine that they sell. The conventional wisdom is that consumers associate lower bottle weight with lower quality, so there was pushback about this method to reduce the firm’s carbon footprint.

Happily, according to Jackson, consumers didn’t notice the difference and the environmental savings became a cost-reducing part of Jackson’s carbon-reducing program. The world is not filled with free lunches like this, but there were several examples given of actions that paid for themselves, contributing to both financial and environmental bottom lines.

All Along the Value Chain

Antonio Amorim, president of the world’s largest natural cork producer, argued for the environmental benefits of natural cork closures. The cork closure, which captures carbon rather than releasing it, can offset the carbon generated by the glass bottle it seals, he said. Amorim announced plans to expand cork forests, building upon previous innovations aimed at speeding up the long cork harvest cycle and ridding corks of perceptible cork taint.

Other speakers addressed issues up and down the supply chain, illustrating both the challenges and opportunities that climate change action presents.

U.C. Davis professor Roger Boulton’s presentation on “The Winery of the Future” was a fascinating deep dive into what is possible with current technology if you decide to design a winery from scratch to have zero or negative emissions. It is like a Rubik’s Cube in a way, since each action has many reactions, but Boulton showed that a solution is possible, with a super-efficient production facility the result.

Call to Action

Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank, Robert Swaak of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and I had the final session of the conference, “Efficiency and Economics: Call to Action” We presented in a “two-minute drill” mode because the earlier sessions went over time and the we had to finish on schedule so that the room could be turned for the afternoon summit.

Rannekleiv focused on the many steps that Rabobank is taking to foster innovation in the food and agriculture sector to address sustainability and climate change issues. Swaak could have touted PwC’s environmental impact assessment practice, but choose instead to add a new dimension to the discussion by highlighting how climate change impacts businesses, and not just wine, through the various often unseen risks that it introduces or magnifies.

I talked about the fact that climate change requires new ways of thinking (which fit in very well with my colleagues’ remarks) and issued the call for action. Wine gets it, I said, but that’s not enough. The wine industry needs to extend its influence across the value chain in order to maximize its impact.

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Sue and I want to thank Adrian, Taylor’s Port, Pancho, and David Furer for organizing this conference and give special thanks to Greg for suggesting that we participate.  To everyone we met at the conference: we hope our paths cross again very soon.

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