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Global WarmingEffective Adaptation, or Dangerous Contribution to Climate Change?

Effective Adaptation, or Dangerous Contribution to Climate Change?

Expanding Global Cold Chains: Effective Adaptation, or Dangerous Contribution to Climate Change?

Benjamin Ritter and Kevin Karl
|January 27, 2023

Keeping food cold because it moves through the availability chain is crucial to fighting food insecurity, stopping food waste, and supporting agricultural livelihoods and economies throughout the developing world.

But each step and technology of the cold chain — fridges, industrial chillers, and transportation — has significant potential impacts on climate change, from massive energy demands to powerful fluorinated greenhouse gas emissions.

Together, these impacts make global food system refrigeration answerable for as much as 5% of worldwide energy needs and 2.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising global temperatures and emerging economies will proceed to drive demand for enormous recent cold chain infrastructures.

Can we avoid a runaway cycle of cooling technologies contributing to the very causes of worldwide warming?

The freezer aisle of a supermarket in West Yorkshire. Source: Michael Taylor (Mtaylor848) via Creative Commons

Crucial Technologies With Significant Climate Impacts

Cold chains are critical components of local, national, and global food systems, but they will have significant climate impacts.

Greater than 1.6 billion tons of food are wasted annually throughout the worldwide food system. That’s 13% of the world’s total food production — enough to feed 950 million people — that’s either lost within the food supply chain or wasted by end-consumers. This food loss and waste represents significant embodied carbon emissions — from upstream land and energy inputs to transportation and methane emissions in landfills — that total nearly 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually.

Cold chain technologies can reduce food losses inside the availability chain and mitigate this wasteful emissions footprint. Roughly 144 million tons of food loss might be reduced in developing countries alone with proper cold storage.

But these technologies include clear emissions trade-offs. Almost every step of the cold chain — from post-harvest forced-air chillers, refrigerated trucks and shipping containers, to industrial cold storage — requires massive amounts of energy to maintain foods from spoiling. And when these energy demands are met with fossil-fuel power, the emissions footprint of cold chains quickly adds up. In 2018, refrigeration accounted for nearly 5% of worldwide energy needs, making these technologies alone answerable for 2.5% of total emissions that 12 months.

Cooling technologies also leak powerful greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere. Fluorinated gases (F-gases) are used as refrigerants in cold chain technologies and have an unlimited potential to contribute to global warming; in some cases, they’re 25,000 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at atmospheric warming. Based on data released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global food-related F-gas emissions increased, on average, by 13% from 2000 to 2007, and have remained stubbornly high since then.

Graph depicting increase in global food system emissions of fluorinated gases

Global food system emissions of fluorinated gases increased on average by 13% annually from 1990 to 2007 and have remained stubbornly high since then. Source: FAOSTAT.

Taken together, these energy demands and F-gas emissions make global food cold chains answerable for as much as 3.5% of the world’s carbon footprint.

Climate change will proceed to fuel demand for more refrigeration and global cold chain development, especially in developing countries.

The dual pressures of worldwide economic and demographic growth would require food systems to fulfill ever-higher demand — as much as 70% more production of plant and animal products by 2050. And as global temperatures proceed to rise (1.02 °C and counting), there can be even greater demand for cooling technologies. Based on the International Energy Agency, as many as 14 billion cooling appliances, including non-food related technologies, can be needed by 2050.

Cold chains are expanding rapidly inside developing countries and emerging economies, with China’s cold chain market expected to nearly double by 2026. Based on FAO data, developing countries are currently answerable for only 6% of worldwide F-gas emissions from food systems, though this share is more likely to only grow. These same countries are poised to learn most from the benefits of expanded cold chains, including bolstered food security, improved livelihoods for farmers, and adaptation to increased heatwaves and extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

A graph depicting the slow increwas of global food system emissions of fluorinated gases in developing countries

The share of worldwide food system emissions of fluorinated gases from developing countries have been slowly increasing from 2% in 1990 to six% in 2020. Source: FAOSTAT

Proposed Solutions

Climate-sensitive technologies and policies must close this runaway feedback loop and maximize the advantages of expanding cold chains.

Faced with these pressures, how can global cold chains expand without exacerbating a serious source of climate change?

National and regional projects, just like the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-Chain, are working to construct capability for brand spanking new cold-chain markets and low-carbon technologies in sub-Saharan Africa through local trainings, research and development investments, and battery-powered food transport projects. 

Corporations with major public climate commitments are also racing to develop cleaner refrigerated cold chains. One among Walmart’s core pillars to fulfill its ambitious Project Gigaton targets include transitioning to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-free refrigeration with low-global warming potential across its supermarkets and cold chain, and is piloting a recent battery-powered refrigerated trailer. Other major players within the private sector — including Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, and Ingersoll Rand — have made public commitments to eliminate refrigerants with high global warming potential and offer HFC-free products, demonstrating the supply of suitable alternatives and potential for further motion.

The 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol goals to scale back global HFC emissions by 80% by 2047, a formidable multilateral response to the specter of runaway HFC emissions. The US Senate just formally ratified the amendment in October, although developing countries are allowed to attend until 2024, or 2028 in some cases, before freezing their national HFC consumption in step with the agreement. Current F-gas emissions data from the worldwide food system don’t yet indicate a big decline, though it is anticipated that developed countries will soon deliver on their production and consumption commitments.

A graph showing annual aggregate global food system fluorinated gas emissions have remained nearly unchanged since 2007.

Annual aggregate global food system fluorinated gas emissions have remained nearly unchanged since 2007, despite the passage of the 2016 Kigali Amendment. Source: FAOSTAT

As with the broader fight against climate change, it can take a big selection of creative policy solutions and commitments to be sure that we address the climate impacts of cold chains at the size and pace required to avoid the worst impacts of a rapidly warming world.

Connecting Food Systems and Climate Motion

Fortunately, there’s already meaningful momentum across sectors to assist address the challenges of expanding global cold chains.

But it can take even greater collaboration to be sure that these efforts maximize the advantages of expanded food system cold chains: low-carbon solutions to assist mitigate food waste and loss, improve food security and farmer livelihoods, and help communities adapt — quite than contribute — to climate change.

With international policymakers finally beginning to connect food systems with global climate motion, it’s crucial that we expand these efforts to contemplate the role of worldwide cold chains on national and worldwide carbon footprints.

Climate-sensitive technologies and policies may also help decouple cold chains from their worst climate impacts and can be needed to effectively tackle our global food and climate crises.

Benjamin Ritter
is a graduate student in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Kevin Karl is a research associate at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research where he focuses on the intersection of food systems and climate change as a member of the Food Climate Partnership.

The Food Climate Partnership is a consortium of scientists and policy practitioners from Columbia Climate School’s Center for Climate Systems Research and Center on Global Energy Policy, the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, and Recent York University’s School of Environmental Studies.


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