In a worrying report published yesterday, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) calculates that about a quarter of the carbon footprint of a supermarket is the result of the use of HFCs in refrigeration equipment.
HFCs – hydrofluorocarbons – are the usual replacement for CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) as a refrigerant. CFCs were phased out because of their damage to the ozone layer – but the fact remains that HFCs may not hit the ozone, but their global warming contribution is many thousands of times greater than CO2 itself.
The problem is that refrigerants leak. And EIA research indicates that supermarkets are the biggest source of HFC released in Britain. In 2005, HFC emissions from refrigeration and aircon systems in supermarkets amounted to the equivalent of two million tonnes of CO2. EIA says that this is "equivalent to flying a plane from London to New York over 2.5 million times".
Many consumer refrigerators use climate-friendly coolants, but commercial systems have lagged behind. Instead of HFCs, substances like ammonia and even CO2 itself can be used effectively - and they cost less too. The UN/Greenpeace project "Refrigerants, Naturally" has encouraged many large corporations to shift, and in 2007 many of the UK's leading supermarket chains pledged to move away from HFCs.
The EIA set out to see how well they were doing, and in the middle of last year sent out a questionnaire to eleven supermarkets, quizzing them in detail about their use of HFCs and what they are doing to reduce carbon emissions in general. They followed up with correspondence with retailers and suppliers and took in publicly available retailer information.
The results are depressing, frankly. None of the supermarkets asked have more than four stores that are HFC-free. Supermarkets claimed there are insufficient engineers trained in the new coolants and this is certainly an area that can do with government and industry support.
Marks and Spencer were found by EIA to be the most proactive, including targets for HFC-free refrigeration. They are only targeting 10 stores, however. Tesco were second up, good at being HFC-free behind the scenes – but they are the biggest retailer and the biggest HFC emissions contributor so they need to do a lot more. Sainsbury's were working on energy efficiency, but their emissions were rising, not falling. Waitrose came bottom of the major companies asked, with some "very vague responses" to the questionnaire.
Lidl, Aldi and Iceland came bottom, failing to participate in the survey, with Iceland actually being given a score of -1 "for refusing to honour their 1999 promise to switch to climate friendly alternatives."
I am a Co-Op member and have been for a great many years (and my parents before me!), and I was personally saddened to see the Co-Op in the middle of the pack, with a score of only 23 (M&S scored 42). Only one out of their 2250 stores had converted to climate-friendly refrigeration, no use of alternatives in transport refrigeration, although they had set targets specifying measures and number of stores. Their leakage actually increased between 2006 and 2007 (though they have been expanding so perhaps that didn't help). Their future policy calls for the development of HFC-free systems to go into 1000 stores, but they don't say when. Other parts of the Co-Op are much further along than the supermarkets - look at the wind turbines on the roof of the CIS building in Manchester for example. Come on, Co-Op! You can do much better!
In the report's conclusions, EIA admits that a big problem is the shortage of trained engineers. But they feel the reason change is so slow is that it isn't in the public eye. EIA hopes to change that with this report. They say,
"So we're asking the public to urge supermarkets to make a commitment to combating climate
- Publicly committing to not install new HFC equipment by the end of 2009 and to provide a date by which they will phase out HFCs throughout the supply chain.
- Join the 'Refrigerants, Naturally!' initiative, which encourages big companies to switch from climate damaging gases.
- Set up training courses teaching engineers how to handle natural refrigerants and ensure that contractors attend them."
EIA also calls on the government to do more to support supermarkets in making the change, such as offering incentives and legislating for engineer training.
You can read the full report by visiting the Chilling Facts web site, which also suggests action you can take.