The cold chain contradiction

What does a net zero cold chain actually mean; and how, collectively, can we achieve it? Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, tackles this fundamental climate-change issue

London, UK: There is a counterpoint at the heart of our industry’s net zero ambitions. An effective cold chain is crucial both for feeding people and reducing the significant carbon impact of food waste, and this need will only increase in a warming world.

But storing and transporting food at low temperatures currently necessitates significant energy use and emissions. With eyes firmly fixed on the future, businesses in the UK cold chain are adopting low carbon strategies, investing in new technologies, and embedding low carbon practices throughout their operations. Major improvements have been made already but there is some way still go. The two key questions of the moment: what does a net zero cold chain actually mean; and how, collectively, can we achieve it?

One aspect we can be sure of is an intensification of government regulation aimed at cutting carbon. Government has committed to law its ambition for Net Zero by 2050 and across the economy we can expect taxes and regulation to drive the switch to low carbon products and equipment through incentives, penalties, and restrictions on vehicle movements.

Our industry will change as government accelerates decarbonisation of the grid, phases out and restricts F-Gases, bans diesel vans and HGVs, and implements low emissions zones in urban areas.

It is not just regulation that is expected to intensify, but also the commercial benefits of a low carbon approach. By improving efficiency, businesses are already accessing commercial benefits and setting themselves up for greater advantage in the future. With energy prices rising, the opportunity to save costs is compelling. More widely, cutting carbon can reduce operating costs, lower overheads, help avoid downtime, and lessen the tax burden.

The cold storage Climate Change Agreement which the Cold Chain Federation administers already saves our industry in excess of £10m in taxes each year. Cold chain businesses who take the lead on net zero are also best placed to offer premium services and respond to net zero requirements from customers.

Through our Net Zero Cold Chain project, we are working with our members and their customers, and with academics and technology providers to explore how our industry can best access these benefits and prepare for regulatory change. An ambitious but realistic roadmap towards a Net Zero Cold Chain in the UK should define parameters, identify challenges and opportunities in the context of food industry and societal change, explore innovation, and show where and when investment from government and business will have the greatest impacts.

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation

At an industry level there are certainly still opportunities to make significant energy efficiency improvements through ‘housekeeping’: stock level optimisation, lighting and insulation in cold storage facilities, for example. Efficient refrigeration systems, automation and off-grid renewable energy generation are increasingly a feature of our industry. And anticipated advances in blockchain, Internet of Things facilities management, and smart grid integration hold great promise.

For refrigerated vehicles, a growing number of businesses are making impressive strides towards transitioning to electric, especially in smaller vehicle categories. But we must recognise that robust alternatives to diesel power are not yet widely available for the efficient, reliable refrigeration required across all types of vehicles needed for the transport of chilled and frozen food. There is exciting work taking place to trial and adopt new alternative technologies and we want to work with Government to identify where increased support could fast-track the transition.

The path to net zero will remain a central focus for the cold chain long after the challenges of Covid and Brexit have receded. Individual businesses and the industry as a whole must maintain momentum now, to make the progress that will be needed to reap the commercial rewards and avoid regulatory penalties. The Cold Chain Federation will be providing support, advice and advocacy, every step of the way.

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