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The cannabis industry may be thought of as “green,” but there is still a lot to be desired regarding cultivators’ carbon footprint.
Study after study shows cannabis is responsible for high carbon emissions, contributing to climate change. Indoor growing facilities require a large amount of electricity to operate while also pumping carbon dioxide to promote photosynthesis and plant growth.
With the U.S. cannabis industry expected to continue growing by about 16 percent annually, leaders must develop best management practices that prioritize energy efficiency and lower emissions to create a truly green Green Rush.
Related: Here’s How Large Cannabis Companies Can Truly Help the Smaller Players
The growing boom but concerns remain
Industry growth has spurred competition in the marketplace, which has lowered prices. Producers are working to grow more high-quality cannabis cheaper to stay ahead of their competitors. Indoor farming, also known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA), allows growers to maximize their control over production, with precise inputs to generate exceptional crop quality and technology to lower costs. A study by PitchBook Data shows investors pumped $929 million into CEA projects in 2020 — more than doubling their investment over 2019 — while COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in the global food supply chain.
Cannabis and controlled environment agriculture may be booming, but concerns remain. Indoor cannabis growing is energy-intensive, mainly due to heating, air conditioning, ventilation, and lighting. Energy consumption leads to greenhouse gas emissions. In one example, the cannabis industry in Colorado accounts for 1.3 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, which is on par with coal mining and trash collection.
High water demand can also potentially lead to water pollution and illegal diversions, affecting natural ecosystems. Growing cannabis requires large amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with routine pest and disease control. Some of these chemicals can pose a risk of runoff or leaching into groundwater if improperly discharged.
Going green is good business
Overcoming these challenges is key for the industry to continue expanding business. A survey conducted by Cone Communications shows that, out of 1,000 people sampled, 92 percent said they are more likely to trust a company that supports social or environmental issues, with 88 percent saying such measures would make them more loyal to a brand.
As it stands, there is little to no government regulation on emissions for growing cannabis indoors. Immediate changes in the industry would likely be driven by corporate social responsibility, a form of self-regulation to promote stewardship and sustainability.
Utilities across the country are already targeting efficiency as they face mandates to lower their emissions. Company leaders could develop a set of best management practices that could apply overall indoor farming enterprises by working with controlled environment agriculture facilities. From there, cannabis cultivators could adopt those practices into their operations to maximize their sustainability.
Indoor growing facilities themselves can also be engineered to be more “green.” Some firms are targeting high-performance buildings that meet the unique space and temperature requirements for growing cannabis, attaining the highest sustainability standards. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system is one of the most widely adopted standards for sustainable buildings. It incorporates seven focus areas: water efficiency, energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; and indoor environmental quality.
In addition, the nonprofit Resource Innovation Institute, based in Portland, Oregon, works with project partners to optimize facilities for efficiency and productivity. These public-private collaborations are conducting the research needed to accelerate the adoption of energy-efficient designs in cannabis facilities while permanent government regulations take shape.
Precision irrigation technology, such as soil moisture monitors and automated sprinklers, offer promise for conserving water, which is becoming especially important in the drought-stricken West, where every drop of water matters. One manufacturer of water-efficient cultivation equipment has also identified using reclaimed condensation to conserve water in indoor growing operations, reducing consumption 70 to 80 percent.
Business leaders should not measure the return on investment in short-term costs. Instead, they should look at long-term sustainability. Corporate social responsibility is already a proven draw for enhancing brand loyalty. Future tax credits and financing options may also make “green” upgrades more affordable. The regulatory environment for growing indoor cannabis becomes more evident, and the economic and social benefits more attractive.
Best management practices are still needed to gain momentum toward sustainable cannabis and controlled environment agriculture operations. Growers and processors have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the industry’s green revolution through greater energy and water efficiency.