A Case for Sustainable Cooling
Sushi, fish fry, and paella feature seafood as the star ingredient, but how often have we stopped to understand how that fish got to our plate? The cold chain, the process of chilling food from harvest to table, is expected to reach $447.50 billion by 2025 – a 15.1% rate of growth from 2019 (ReportLinker). With the cold chain growing around the world, its subsequent carbon footprint will increase and intensify the effects of climate change. The next generation of cold chain operations must include progressive solutions to prevent product loss, support energy efficiency, and prevent toxic refrigerant leaks.
Sea to Table
A multi-billion dollar and growing industry, the cold chain, is barely on the climate movement’s radar, yet it accounts for almost 3% of global emissions and is increasing. Consider the salmon in your freezer. Before arriving at your local Costco, the fish traveled thousands of miles through a series of refrigerated ships and trucks and was held in temperature-regulated storerooms, food processing plants, and distribution centers. The ocean-to-table cold chain process exemplifies the incredible complexity and energy fresh food needs to get from its origin to our tables. The cold chain has revolutionized how we eat by making fresh fruits and vegetables available at all times of the year.
Cold Chain’s Climate Impact
Increased access to fresh foods improves peoples’ health worldwide, but the impact of expanding the cold chain industry could devastate our environment. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, cold chain industry emissions make up 3% of total global emissions. While this number may seem insignificant, cooling appliances are responsible for over 97.8% of all HFC emissions. Because the cold chain is expanding rapidly, especially in developing nations, emissions will continue to increase as a result.
The cold chain industry contributes to climate change in three major categories: food waste, energy consumption, and potent emission leaks. Refrigerant emissions, thought to be eradicated by the international Montreal Protocol treaty of 1987, are the climate movement’s most underestimated challenge. The ozone-depleting chemical, CFC, was discontinued as a result of the radical Montreal Protocol and those chemicals were replaced with HFC chemicals. While not ozone-depleting, HFCs have a warming potential of 9,000 times that of carbon dioxide and the only source is from human activity. In 2018, the US emitted 167.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent from HFC chemicals. This has the same impact as driving from San Diego to Anchorage 120,000 times (US EPA).
The refrigerant leak problem lacks awareness in the mainstream climate-solution conversation, but Project Drawdown shows refrigerant management is the fourth most important solution to climate change. Properly managing refrigerant chemicals has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 57.7 gigatons from 2020 to 2050. This massive impact from a small fix in the cold chain system is an innovation well within our reach, but equipment owners prioritize profits over sustainability which limits their interest in developing new processes.
Food waste comes at a stunning economic cost – the UN estimates that the annual economic impact of food waste is approximately $450 billion. In the US, about 12% of food waste occurs as a result of inappropriate refrigeration (NRDC). In addition to the economic cost, Project Drawdown identifies food waste reduction as the most substantial solution we can implement now to keep global warming within planetary boundaries. This strategy has the potential to prevent 87.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions from 2020 to 2050. By catching inefficiencies and using data to manage the cold chain before problems arise, managers will encounter fewer mistakes in cooling and avoid enormous sunk costs from product loss, feed more people safe food, and reduce the amount of waste in landfills that emit greenhouse gases.
Energy efficiency is a widely adopted climate mitigation method because it is simple to implement and building owners can easily see the economic benefits. Updating old appliances, investing in the most efficient options, and seeking repairs regularly can save businesses money on energy bills. Outside of personal benefits, energy efficiency has one of the largest impacts on total emissions reduction (EIU). In a normal household, appliances and air conditioning and heating make up about 13% and 46% of total energy use, respectively (Direct Energy). Updated cooling systems require less electricity, providing substantial cost savings benefits.
The cold chain is a lucrative industry, yet there are still expensive inefficiencies in the system that, if addressed, could further improve companies’ bottom lines. Sustainable cooling solutions that protect food integrity, improve energy efficiency, and address expensive chemical leaks consider the environmental costs in tandem with the economic costs of the cold chain.