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Cold chain to be electrified to cut transport emissions

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Electrifying refrigerated vans and trucks is a key component in decarbonising the transport of food, medicine, and perishable goods. Personal cars are front and centre in the push to electrify transport, while trucks and vehicles that move perishable goods receive much less attention. This is despite the fact that refrigerated vehicles are core to the cold chain and account for substantial emissions.

A large goods vehicle operating as part of the cold chain. It is estimates that in the UK alone there are over 100 000 refrigerated vehicles on the road. Image credit: Trane Technologies
A large goods vehicle operating as part of the cold chain. It is estimates that in the UK alone there are over 100 000 refrigerated vehicles on the road. Image credit: Trane Technologies

According to 2019 data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, national greenhouse gas emissions would fall by 7% if all medium and heavy-duty lorries were to be electrified, assuming battery charging sources are renewable.

But while the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) is predicted to increase, with major car producers like Nissan and Vauxhall committing to manufacturing plants, the sales of fossil fuel powered goods transport vehicles are reaching record levels.

Heating and cooling expert Trane Technologies argues that to achieve net zero by 2050, this imbalance must be corrected.

“We’ve seen the need for last mile delivery solutions continue to grow as consumers leverage e-commerce and home delivery of perishable goods, and as healthcare providers work to distribute vaccines,” said Karin De Bondt, president of Thermo King Americas for Trane Technologies. “With rising demand comes rising need for more sustainable options, in both last mile and long-haul logistics. In transport, electrification is the best path, and it’s achievable.”

A growing decarbonisation opportunity

Perhaps the biggest benefit provided by vehicles that transport perishable or degradable cargo is the ‘cold chain’, where products – from food to pharmaceuticals – are transported through the entire logistics network at the required temperature, retaining shelf life and maintaining safety and quality.

In the UK alone, estimates indicate there are around 100 000 refrigerated vehicles on the road, demonstrating the sheer size of the sector and thus the need for an energy transition.

Electrification can not only sizeably reduce direct vehicle carbon emissions in line with 2050 net zero targets, but also offers more consistent regulation of temperature, meaning there is less food loss from source to store. With experts citing food loss among the significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s another important factor in achieving carbon reduction goals.

Transport refrigeration is in the midst of change brought on by technological innovation from manufacturers, sustainable practice goals for fleets and lower emission requirements by regulators.

The EU has established a goal to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035 while in the US, the state of California is currently readying targeted zero-emission requirements for transport refrigeration units sold or operated in the state. “California is done with combustion. We are going to show the world the path forward,” said Lea Yamashita, air pollution specialist at California Air Resources Board (CARB), where she is managing the agency’s effort to include transport refrigeration in a clean energy transition.

Environments and economies are depending on sector transition

Transition in this already very complex sector won’t come without significant challenges. As it stands now, small and mid-size trucks are further down the road in their transition to electric, with slower progress in large goods vehicles.

An even more pressing social need for sustainable technology is in developing economies, where the presence of cold chain infrastructure remains relatively immature – representing an intensified opportunity to implement sustainable cold chain solutions before fossil fuels take a firm foothold.

It’s these same under-served communities that have the most to gain from a more efficient cold chain by reducing food loss and generating more equitable economic prosperity and well-being as a sustainable long-term outcome.