Keeping food cool as it travels through the supply chain is critical to combating food insecurity, preventing food waste, and supporting agricultural livelihoods and economies across the developing world.
But every step and technology of the cold chain – industrial refrigerators and refrigerants, transportation – has huge potential impacts on climate change, from massive energy demands to powerful fluorinated greenhouse gas emissions.
Combined, these effects make cooling the global food system responsible for up to 5% of global energy needs and 2.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Rising global temperatures and emerging economies will continue to drive demand for massive new cold chain infrastructures.
Can we avoid a runaway cycle of cooling technologies contributing to the real causes of global warming?
Wasting 13% of the total food production in the world
Cold chains are critical components of local, national and global food systems, but they can have significant climate impacts.
Over 1.6 billion tons of food is wasted annually throughout the global food system. This represents 13% of the world’s total food production – enough to feed 950 million people – which is lost in the food supply chain or wasted by end consumers. Food loss and waste account for significant carbon emissions – from land and energy inputs upstream to transportation and methane emissions in landfills – totaling approximately 4.4 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions each year.
Cold chain technologies can reduce food losses within the supply chain, and reduce wasteful emissions. Approximately 144 million tons of food losses can be reduced in developing countries alone with proper cold storage.
But these technologies come with obvious emissions trade-offs. Almost every step in the cold chain—from post-harvest forced-air coolers, refrigerated trucks, and shipping containers to industrial cold storage—requires massive amounts of energy to keep foods from spoiling.
And when these energy demands are met by fossil fuel energy, cold chain emissions add up quickly. In 2018, refrigeration accounted for nearly 5% of global energy needs, making these technologies alone responsible for 2.5% of all emissions in that country. general.
cold chain technologies
Refrigeration technologies also leak powerful greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere. F-gases are used as refrigerants in cold chain technologies, and have huge potential to contribute to global warming; In some cases, it is 25,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global emissions of food-related fluorinated gases increased, on average, by 13% from 2000 to 2007, and have remained high since then.
These energy demands and F-gas emissions make global food cold chains responsible for up to 3.5% of the global carbon footprint.
Climate change will continue to fuel the demand for more cooling and global cold chain development, especially in developing countries.
The dual pressures of global economic and demographic growth will require that food systems meet ever-increasing demand – with up to a 70% increase in production of plant and animal products by 2050.
And as global temperatures continue to rise (1.02°C and counting), there will be more demand for cooling technologies.
According to the International Energy Agency, up to 14 billion refrigeration appliances, including non-food-related technologies, will be needed by 2050.
Expansion of cold chains in developing countries
Cold chains are expanding rapidly within developing countries and emerging economies, with the cold chain market in China expected to nearly double by 2026.
According to FAO data, developing countries are currently responsible for only 6% of global F-gas emissions from food systems, although this share is only likely to grow. These same countries are poised to make the most of the benefits of extended cold chains, including enhanced food security, improved livelihoods for farmers, and adaptation to increasing heat waves and extreme weather events caused by climate change.
Climate-sensitive technologies and policies need to close this runaway feedback loop and maximize the benefits of expanding cold chains.
In the face of these pressures, how can global cold chains expand without exacerbating a major source of climate change?
National and regional projects, such as the Africa Center of Excellence for Sustainable Refrigeration and Cold Chain, are building capacity for new markets for cold chain and low carbon technologies in sub-Saharan Africa through local training, R&D investments, and battery-powered food transportation projects.
Companies with major public climate commitments are also racing to develop cleaner cold chains.
One of the key pillars for meeting the ambitious Gigaton Project targets includes moving to HFC-free refrigeration with low global warming potential across supermarkets and the cold chain.
A new battery-powered refrigerated trailer is trialling Other major private sector players have made public commitments to phase out high-GWP refrigerants and offer carbon-neutral products