Think Before You Bake!

By Dharisha Mirando 18 December, 2019

Christmas baking is great for gatherings but is it good for our planet? CWR's Mirando muses

Baking all sort of glorious calorific creations is a must-do activity for Christmas, yet it is extremely water-intensive & energy-consuming
Chocolate & nuts are the most intensive key ingredients - >17k litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of chocolate ; also, ingredients of 1 slice of chocolate yule log = a 2 hrs shower
Source of power is crucial too - using biomass energy to power an hour of oven requires 59l of water vs. wind energy = 1l ; with HK's electricity coming mostly from coal, think before you bake!

I’m an avid baker. I enjoy the process, watch copious amounts of Great British Bake Off and also have a sweet tooth. I’m the person at a restaurant who checks the dessert menu first so I can decide how big or small my main should be.

Christmas gives me the excuse to put the oven on and get baking…

…but how water-intensive is this hobby of mine?

Christmas gives me the excuse to put the oven on and get baking all sorts of glorious calorific creations. Everyone at work as well as friends and family get the spoils; some great and some not so great. 

But since I work at CWR I started to wonder, how water-intensive is this hobby of mine? 

Well, I wish I hadn’t wondered because it’s terrible. 

Baking is extremely water-intensive! And the numbers I have put together are just averages and don’t take into account the electricity consumed to use an oven/mixer or the carbon emissions of the ingredients/electricity.

How I did it

I looked at five different traditional Christmas recipes and checked the water footprint of each of the ingredients using the data from the Water Footprint Network. Below are the amounts of water needed to produce one kilo of some of the key ingredients.

Baking is extremely water-intensive! Chocolate & nuts are the worst…

…>17k litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of chocolate – even higher than a kilo of beef

Clearly chocolate and nuts are the worst. Over 17,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of chocolate; this includes all the water in the supply chain from growing the cocoa beans to drying and roasting them, extracting the cocoa butter/liquor/powder and making this into a chocolate bar and transporting it.

This is of course an average but it’s very high. It’s even higher than a kilo of beef, which is usually seen as one of the most water-intensive foods.

Now to the baking

The recipes I used are mince pies with homemade mince, gingerbread men, chocolate yule log, Christmas pudding and a stollen wreath. All classics. I couldn’t find some of the ingredients such as citrus peel so had to make approximations and you can find the results below.

The water needed for just one slice of the chocolate yule log is the same as a 2 hour shower

The water needed for the ingredients of just one slice of the chocolate yule log is the same as a 2 hour shower, 57 bathtubs of water (200l each), or enough drinking water for an average person for almost 5 months (8l/day). That’s a lot.

The gingerbread man is clearly the best of the five to bake as it doesn’t contain any nuts or chocolate but the ingredients still require a 15 min shower (138l) worth of water. So it isn’t a small amount.

It’s not just the ingredients, the source of power is important too

None of the above takes into account the water used for the electricity to power the mixer or oven. The water intensity of that depends on what type of power you’re using.

Using an oven for 1 hr with biomass energy = 59l of water vs. wind energy = 1l

Wind or solar use the least amount of water for 1MWh compared to biomass, hydro, coal, oil and nuclear. For example, on average using an oven for an hour requires 59l of water if the energy comes from biomass, vs 1l if you’re using wind-powered electricity.

What does all this mean?

The sad conclusion is that I need to start baking with less chocolate and nuts. If they were grown in water abundant regions I’d be less worried but unfortunately they’re not. 

I need to start baking with less chocolate & nuts…

…if they were grown in water abundant regions I’d be less worried but unfortunately they’re not

For example, California is the biggest almond producer in the world but it’s very dry and it’s getting drier. And cocoa is predominantly produced in West African countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which have scarce water resources and climate change is already starting to bite.

And I live in Hong Kong, where most of our electricity is from coal which is water-intensive. Worse still, it’s carbon-intensive, which accelerates climate change and exacerbates water scarcity. 

Is this the end of my hobby? No of course not, just an evolution. Maybe I’ll start looking into no-bake chocolate and nut-free recipes. And on the positive side, it’s a good excuse for new recipe books; I’ll add that to my Christmas list! But it’ll have to be the online versions because there is also a hidden cost of paper. 

Further Reading

  • Water In: Beer, Crisps & Chocolate – Food & drink help create a festive atmosphere in Christmas but how much water do they use? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan looks into the water footprints of beer, chocolate & crisps, the impact on China & potential solutions
  • Diet, Food Waste & Kids In 5 Graphics – Agriculture emits as much greenhouse gas as electricity and this needs to change. CWR’s Woody Chan sees 3 ways to reduce this, from changing diets and cutting food waste to fewer kids
  • The Water Footprint Of Hong Kong’s Diet – Urban centres are very much dependent on distant resources and as a result, their populations are unaware of their indirect water footprint. Davy Vanham from the European Commission looks at Hong Kong’s diet’s high water footprint
  • Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork – China’s new plan on grain supply and storage says saving grain means saving water. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu contemplates challenges & opportunities in reducing food waste for a hungry & thirsty future
  • Food Revolution 5.0: Digital Printing Meat – Food Revolution 5.0., clean meat… Hong Kong is there. Get the latest from Professor Kenneth Lee of Chinese University of Hong Kong and hear more on his 3D printed foie gras

More on Christmas

  • More Bad Climate News This Christmas – Want to stay in blissful ignorance this festive season? If not, get your head out of the sand to receive a quick dose of “real news” on our climate future
  • More Green, More Money? – Companies’ participation is vital to combat climate & water risks – what if they can access to more capital at the same time? CWR’s Ronald Leung illustrates the secret lies in active investor engagement
  • Sustainable Fashion Today: A Sweet But Short High – 2019 has been a busy year for sustainable fashion but with sweet but short highs as CWR’s Dawn McGregor highlights. Given fashion’s huge climate impact, McGregor laments the need for more strategic solutions
  • The Hidden Cost Of Our Christmas Cards & Crackers – Thinking of sending Christmas cards? Think again as our Yuanchao Xu expands on the hidden costs and argues that it’s time to go circular with our festive paper habits
  • Pets – Cute But Are They Green? – Did you know that the water footprint of a golden retriever’s diet is 80% that of a China diet? CWR’s dog lover Chien Tat Low explores the environmental impacts of rising pet ownership
Dharisha Mirando
Author: Dharisha Mirando
Dharisha Mirando hails from the finance industry and joined CWR as she believes that climate and water factors are downplayed by the sector despite being significant investment risks. To tackle this, her ambition is to help build consensus, bridge the gap between finance and science, and engage with investors to incorporate these risks into their due diligence and portfolio management. This could in turn lead to innovative Green Finance instruments becoming more prevalent. She has already made strong headway as the lead author of a recently published report with Manulife Asset Management and the Asia Investor Group on Climate change, which highlights the imminent threats to Asian asset owners' portfolios from climate and water risks. Dharisha has also undertaken a number of speaking engagements on these pressing issues at investor and insurance conferences. Prior to joining CWR, Dharisha worked for a long-only public equities fund. She has also worked in the impact investment space in London and Singapore where she provided technical assistance to social enterprises, helped them raise equity investments, and managed a debt portfolio.
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