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Home » IIR informatory note on the carbon footprint of the cold chain

IIR informatory note on the carbon footprint of the cold chain

This is the portion of the note: “The carbon footprint of the cold chain”, and section summary for policymakers, and is freely available from the IIR website.

The cold chain must become a national priority, not only in terms of food safety and health, but also in terms of contributing to the fight against global warming. Photo by IIR

The cold chain must become a national priority, not only in terms of food safety and health, but also in terms of contributing to the fight against global warming. Photo by IIR

Based on the most recent data available from the FAO, the International Institute of Refrigeration estimates that of the 4547 million tonnes (Mt) of food produced in 2017 for human consumption, 1800 Mt should be refrigerated. But only 813 Mt are actually subjected to refrigeration, resulting in food losses of 526 Mt. A more extensive cold chain would allow better use of the food produced and limit the need for increased agricultural production.

Reducing food losses due to lack of refrigeration would therefore avoid the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions associated with this additional agricultural production. However, the cold chain also generates CO₂ emissions due to refrigerant leaks into the atmosphere from the refrigeration equipment (direct emissions) but also and above all due to the energy consumption of the refrigeration equipment (indirect emissions) at each stage of the cold chain: pre-cooling of food after production, refrigerated transport, cold storage, retail sale and storage in the refrigerator or freezer of the end consumer.

This raises the question of whether the additional CO₂ emissions resulting from the implementation of a more extensive cold chain are not greater than the emissions avoided by reducing food losses due to a lack of refrigeration. To answer this key question, the IIR has developed an innovative model to calculate CO₂ emissions for each stage of the cold chain and for all countries in the world.

The results obtained are presented in the IIR Informatory Note “The carbon footprint of the cold chain”. [1] This CO₂ modelling relies on an assessment of the refrigeration equipment stock used along the current global cold chain. This assessment is based on an evaluation of the quantities of foodstuffs subjected to refrigeration in each country, the estimated performance of this equipment and a set of other parameters specified in a methodological annex [1] published simultaneously with this note.

This work was made possible with the assistance of the IIR’s international network of experts. Using this model, the IIR compared the CO₂ emissions associated with the current global cold chain with those of an ‘improved’ cold chain. Rather than a very unrealistic scenario that would lead to a total elimination of food losses due to a lack of refrigeration, this study considered a scenario in which the cold chain in all countries is brought to the same level of equipment and performance as that existing in developed countries. [2] This assumes, first of all, the same amount of equipment per inhabitant, but also an identical energy efficiency of the refrigeration equipment and an identical use of refrigerants with a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP).

The study shows that:

  • An improved global cold chain based on these principles would allow a reduction of almost 50% of the CO₂ emissions of the current cold chain (665 Mt CO₂ eq instead of 1265 Mt CO₂ eq).
  • This improved cold chain would also avoid 290 Mt of food losses (55% of the food losses attributable to the current cold chain). These results highlight the very positive contribution of this improved cold chain:
    • on the one hand to food security through a very significant reduction in food losses in developing countries,
    • on the other hand, to the mitigation of global warming thanks to the reduction of CO₂ emissions by almost half.

These encouraging results should not make us forget that there is still potential for optimising the current cold chain in developed countries, in particular through better temperature management, optimising the energy efficiency of refrigeration equipment and reducing the environmental impact of the refrigerants used (reduction of GWP and leaks in particular). This optimisation, if implemented worldwide, would further reduce CO₂ emissions from the cold chain.

The adoption of the Kigali Amendment, ratified by 116 countries to date [3], should contribute to this. Thanks to the tool it has developed, the IIR has data available to quantify each country’s current cold chain and its potential for improvement in terms of food availability and reduced environmental impact. The IIR is ready to make this data available to countries that wish to do so, as part of a future collaboration.

Indeed, the cold chain must become a national priority, not only in terms of food safety and health (including vaccines), but also in terms of contributing to the fight against global warming. The significant international funding provided for in this framework should be more focused on investments in cold chains. This should be accompanied by investments in transport and electricity infrastructure, including for local, partially autonomous systems. The IIR is ready to provide its expertise to participate in the implementation of these actions in each country.

References

[1] Informatory Notes of the International Institute of Refrigeration: https://iifiir.org/en/iir-informatory-notes.

[2] UNITED DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM. Human Development Reports. 2017. http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/HDI (Accessed on 07/04/2021).

[3] UNITED NATIONS. Treaty Collection. Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer . 2016. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=XXVII-2-f&chapter=27&clang=_en (Accessed on 07/04/2021)