12 months on from the signing of the Kigali Amendment, a global agreement to phase out HFC refrigeration gases, a new report from the University of Birmingham suggests that the energy cost of refrigeration is being forgotten.

The ‘Kigali amendment’, signed on October 16th 2016, was a major achievement. By extending the 1987 Montreal Protocol to include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, it begins to tackle the climate emissions of a group of greenhouse gases that can be thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide pound-for-pound. According to one estimate, the deal could save 70 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) by 2050, avoiding almost 0.5C of warming.

Supermarket refrigerator with fresh fruit and vegetable on shelves

Coming just ten days after the world ratified the Paris climate treaty, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared the HFC deal the ‘single most important step we can take to limit the warming of the planet’, while others hailed a ‘huge win for the climate’.

But as report author Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham explains, “This may sound enormous but the total impact of cooling is far greater. Greenhouse gas emissions from cooling account for 7% of global emissions, double that of aviation and shipping combined; and they are projected to nearly double over the next decade. Within this refrigerant leakage causes around 20-25% of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions but energy consumption the rest. So while Kigali is a big step forward, it doesn’t touch the bulk of the problem. Cleaning up the cooling sector means confronting its energy source and emissions.”

With much of our food being chilled or frozen, the retail sector is key to the transition away from HFCs. Evidence from the United States suggests a supermarket refrigeration system can leak up to 25 percent of its refrigerant charge annually, resulting in approximately 1,556 metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions — producing the same environmental impact as the annual energy used by 165 homes.

However, the report highlights industry analysis which suggests that the European retail sector has already fallen behind schedule in phasing out HFCs and replacing them with natural refrigerants.

As a result, Professor Peters raises concerns that growing environmental and societal pressure, coupled with increasingly stringent regulations, must not drive retailers to focus on solutions which eliminate HFCs, but fail to maximise the wider benefits available from a fundamental evaluation of store and refrigeration architecture.

Discussing the report, Professor Peters said: “The original Montreal Protocol was a momentous step for the planet and our environment. But when we replaced CFCs with HFCs we in fact solved the ozone crisis by stoking climate change. We cannot afford another set of unintended consequences. So as we respond to the Kigali amendment and introduce alternatives to HFCs, we have a collective responsibility to ensure the best possible long term solution is adopted, which not only addresses refrigerants, but also maximises overall energy efficiency.”

He added: “The report released today highlights the need for the refrigeration industry, and retailers in particular, to grasp the opportunity to rethink not just their refrigeration systems but possibly store architecture. That analysis should extend to assessment of thermal management both in-store and even within the wider community, through district thermal networks and deeper integration with electricity grids. Refrigeration systems introduced today could still be operating in 15 years’ time and it’s imperative that we grasp the once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver genuinely clean cold. Given the size of heating and cooling demands within our society, this is essential as we transition to sustainable energy.”

Some supermarkets identified through the report are developing refrigeration strategies that simultaneously advance business and environmental goals. As Professor Peters explained: “Strategic choices about system architecture and/or deeper integration with local energy networks could allow supermarkets to make use of negatively-priced excess renewable power or develop new revenue streams by providing waste heat to district heating networks.”

The report, Retail Refrigeration: Making the Transition to Clean Cold, supported by Emerson, a global refrigeration technology and engineering company, examines what the move to natural refrigerants means for retailers. It recommends that Governments have a critical role to play in encouraging and supporting retailers to transition to natural refrigerants and to ensure that the solutions adopted deliver maximum long term benefit. It also urges Government to invest significantly more into research and development into sustainable refrigeration and integration into energy systems.

Download your copy of Retail Refrigeration: Making the Transition to Clean Cold