Report: European retailers behind schedule on HFC phase-out

One year on from the Kigali deal to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and reduce global warming, a new report has highlighted that European retailers are behind schedule to implement natural refrigerants into operations.

Last year, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol set phase-out timelines for countries to move away from using HFCs for operations such as air conditioning and refrigeration. Countries such as the US, Japan and European nations pledged to start phasing out synthetic HFCs in 2019, while India and a host of developing countries committed to a 2028 timeline.

HFCs – originally introduced as a replacement for CFCs – have a significant impact on climate change, with a global warming effect up to 4,000 times more damaging than CO2. One of the key needs of the Kigali Amendment was that HFCs could cause global warming of 0.5C if left unchecked.

Retailers are large users of HFC systems, and an average supermarket refrigeration system can leak up to a quarter of its refrigerant charge annually, the equivalent of more than 1,500 metric tonnes of carbon emissions.

A new whitepaper launched today (10 October) from University of Birmingham, commissioned by engineering firm Emerson, has gathered analysis from numerous reports and studies to examine progress made to date by European retailers.

The whitepaper notes that the EU F-gas Regulation looks set to cut the supply of HFCs by almost 80% by 2030, and that supply will fall to 48% below 2015 levels next year. This reduction in supply could led to a 20-fold increase in the price of HFC systems, which will likely incentivise the market to shift to natural or low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants.

However, progress to date has been slow. Industry associations such as the EPEE have warned of the price spike for food retailers who fail to act. So far, most supermarkets phasing-out HFC refrigerants have switched to CO2 systems, while Waitrose and Lidl have opted for water-cooled hydrocarbon systems.

To meet the phase-down timetable, the whitepaper notes that food retailers should have installed 18,500 low GWP systems in 2015 alone. However, only 9,000 systems have been installed across Europe to date, while just 500 stores have wholly converted to water-cooled hydrocarbon integrals.

The report’s author Professor Toby Peters said: “The report highlights the need for the refrigeration industry, and retailers in particular, to consider the holistic, long term impact of their technology choices. The phase out of HFCs provide a unique opportunity to look beyond the choice of refrigerant, and to fundamentally rethink store and system architectures to ensure that they maximise environmental and operational benefits.

“Refrigeration systems introduced today could still be operating in 15 years’ time and it’s imperative that we grasp the once in a generation chance 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.” 

Policy at play

The whitepaper notes that the capital costs of CO2 systems can be 5% – 10% higher than the HFC systems they replace. Examining life cycle impacts and the long-term energy efficiency of wider systems should be considered by retailers that are deterred by the increase in upfront capital, according to the report.

The report calls on Governments across Europe to incentivise uptake in natural refrigerants to ensure solutions deliver maximum benefit. Investment into R&D and increasing depreciations allowances for investments into new systems that are both low GWP and energy efficient is encouraged by the report.

There are notable examples of retailers commiting to the phase out. Tesco could be set to reduce its carbon footprint by 40% – well above the 26.5% reduction it is targeting against a 2006 baseline – through the installation of low GWP refrigerants across 1,200 UK stores.

Elsewhere, German discount supermarket group Aldi has invested £20m in natural refrigerants which will be installed across all of its UK stores to reduce its environmental impact. The transition to CO2 refrigeration units will see Aldi’s potential refrigerant gas carbon emissions cut by 99%.

In association with the Consumer Goods Forum, whose members include multinational consumer goods retailers and manufacturers, and other platforms such as Refrigerants, Naturally! member organisations recognise that the opportunity for collective action and impact is huge and are committed to rolling out solution-based initiatives.

In a blog post for edie, Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions’ director of integrated solutions Eric Winandy suggested that phasing-out HFCs provided an “ultimate opportunity” for business sustainability.

Matt Mace

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