Food retailers should take advantage of the HFC phase-down for a more sustainable future

Since the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a global agreement to phase-down CFCs and other substances that deplete the ozone layer, we've come a long way. The hole in the ozone layer has made a significant recovery and perhaps more importantly, the agreement demonstrated that the world can make and stick to a challenging decision for the global good.

Food retailers should take advantage of the HFC phase-down for a more sustainable future

However, 30 years since the historic agreement, it has become abundantly clear that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – the substance used to replace CFCs for refrigeration – have solved one problem, but exacerbated another potentially even more significant one. HFCs have been discovered to have a significant impact on global warming, up to 4,000 times more potent than CO2.

As a result, the world has once again come together and agreed to move away from environmentally damaging refrigerants in favour of sustainable alternatives.  This shift, agreed as part of the Kigali Amendment in October last year, will have a significant positive impact on the environment, with estimates suggesting it could prevent a 0.5 degree increase in global temperatures. 

This is great news for climate change, but simultaneously presents a major challenge for the food retail sector, which is heavily dependent upon refrigeration. As they tackle this challenge the question is whether we can learn lessons from the past, and avoid creating a new problem in the attempt to address another.

HFC phase-down puts pressure on retailers

Retailers are under increasing pressure to act.  The signing of the Kigali Amendment, coupled with action at an EU level, has helped to highlight the environmental impact of HFCs and has demonstrated that regulatory pressure will grow on operators to make a shift to natural refrigerants.  One of the driving factors will be the shrinking availability of HFCs – in the UK alone, the supply will be reduced by 85% between 2019 and 2036.

However, research suggests that as an industry across Europe, retailers are already lagging behind schedule in moving away from HFCs and adopting natural alternatives. As a result, business owners are hastening to replace their refrigeration systems quickly, and run the risk of making rushed decisions that don’t always take into account broader business and environmental factors.

So far, CO2 is the most common replacement for HFCs and this can deliver significant benefits. Aldi for example reports new CO2 systems will help them cut their potential refrigeration emissions in UK stores by 99%. However, according to a new report from the University of Birmingham, the capital cost of CO2 systems can be 5-10% higher than the HFC systems they replace, and their energy consumption can also be significantly higher than other natural refrigerant systems. Given so many retailers are adopting CO2 refrigerants, this raises the question of whether businesses that are moving too quickly are missing the opportunity to install the most environmentally friendly, or even cost effective alternatives.

In particular, there is growing evidence that simpler, hydrocarbon based refrigeration systems, which are far more like domestic fridges, can provide a more sustainable alternative in every sense of the word. They are easier to install and crucially to maintain, which means they will continue to perform as designed for longer. They are also more energy efficient and thereby cheaper to run.

The ultimate opportunity

Given the aggressive phase-down of HFC supplies, it is not surprising that European supermarkets and other food retailers are focused upon meeting obligations under the Kigali Amendment and EU F-gas Regulation. But, as business owners ditch their HFC refrigeration systems for natural alternatives, they also have a great opportunity to do more than just reduce refrigerant leakage. By finding a replacement refrigeration solution that requires less maintenance, enables improved energy efficiency and therefore a reduced overall carbon footprint, they can improve their sustainability credentials while also delivering long term cost savings.

There could be real business and environmental benefits for those who don’t rush into decisions. And it’s positive to see more retailers have begun to adopt hydrocarbon refrigerants. Boots has recently launched various pilot projects to assess the feasibility of both propane/propylene and CO2 systems. Similarly Waitrose has opted for a water-cooled, self-contained hydrocarbon alternative. 

It’s not to say there is one solution, or one refrigerant that will be right for all applications. However for many, taking CO2 refrigeration systems as the obvious choice may be a short-sighted solution which replaces HFCs but leaves other potential business benefits unrealized, including longer term environmental performance.  Therefore we urge businesses to take advantage of the Kigali Amendment to select the most cost effective and crucially environmentally friendly refrigeration technology with a long-term mindset.

Let’s not repeat the experience of the first Montreal protocol and make a decision that as an industry we come to regret.

Eric Winandy is director of Integrated Solutions for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions 

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