The cannabis industry has a carbon footprint that grows with demand

Published Mar 18, 2021 12:59 p.m. ET
iStock / Canan turan

We all know that cannabis rakes in millions of dollars each year, especially in the United States where the market is worth an estimated $13 billion. Business is booming, and that’s great news for both investors and consumers, but this new industry is growing quickly, and it’s taking a toll on the environment. Greenhouse emissions from commercial facilities that cultivate cannabis indoors are causing the most damage, a problem that doesn’t look like it’s going away or even stabilizing anytime soon.

As more states and countries hop on board with legalization, the amount of pollution being pumped into the air will only get worse, which is why it’s essential we get to the root of this problem now. Luckily, we’ve got some of the best and brightest working on different ways to reduce the size of the carbon footprint left behind by cannabis production, but a large part of finding a solution comes down to figuring out which parts of the process are the worst contributors.

One study

A new study which was published in Nature Sustainability offers some of the most detailed information on the cannabis industry’s carbon footprint to date. Hailey Summers, a graduate student from Colorado State University, led the study with the help of advisor Jason Quinn, an associate professor from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and scientist Evan Sproul.

To find and measure the amount of cannabis pollution that comes from the average indoor grow, the trio performed life cycle assessments of several production facilities across the US. What they discovered was that a fair amount of greenhouse emissions could be attributed to the use of electricity and natural gas, which are required to power grow lights, maintain control over indoor environments, and supply enough carbon dioxide to support healthy plant growth.

The team from Colorado State University also determined that there are many variables that can substantially alter each site's carbon footprint, such as climate and electric grid emissions, and to help people get a better understanding of how it works, they created an interactive map that reveals relative emissions for any place in the United States. Countrywide emissions measurements are also available selectively by location.

Indoor versus outdoor cannabis

CSU’s research looked at pollution from indoor cannabis cultivation sites scattered across the US, and they found that these facilities produced an average of between 2,283 and 5,184 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of flower. Outdoor grows, on the other hand, seem to score much better according to the 2018 Cannabis Energy Report, producing between 22.7 and 326.6 kilograms of carbon for each kilogram of cannabis.

The problem with the 2018 Cannabis energy report

The difference between the two types of cultivation is significant, but at the same time, it is important to note that the New Frontier 2018 Cannabis Energy Report doesn’t take everything into consideration. CSU’s estimate includes numerous measurements that aren’t found in the CER because it only shows emissions from electricity use. Still, even with a margin of error, it is clear that indoor cultivators create a substantially larger carbon footprint than those that are lovingly tended to by nature.

Reasons for high energy consumption

The largest percentage of energy demand comes from environmental control systems such as air conditioning, heating, and ventilation, but the reason for the high loads can be attributed to the way that indoor production facilities are regulated. In many cases, like in Colorado, cultivators are required by law to operate close to a retail store, which can increase electricity use by quite a bit.

Energy-sucking warehouses which are easy to grab and perfectly located, are partially to blame, along with an increased need for things like better security in urban areas. Of course, this shows a clear need for massive improvements, especially now that the industry is slated to grow exponentially in the coming years, but we still aren’t entirely certain how to best tackle the problem.

More funding is needed

The researchers from CSU have made a huge difference in the way that many are looking at the cannabis industry, but without further study, it’s impossible to say for sure how quickly the carbon footprint is going to get out of hand and almost as challenging to come up with a solution. That’s why they’re on the hunt for more funding to extend the indoor growth operations model, a move that could give us a much clearer idea of what’s to come.

Why it’s important that we act now

The cannabis industry is still in its infancy, and that’s what makes this the perfect time to act. If we do, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint in the future before it causes irreversible damage to the environment. Of course, every industry produces some kind of pollution, but we can make adjustments now to minimize the impact, and it all starts with better and more targeted research into the matter.

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