• Refrigeration
  • Decarbonization
  • Food Waste

Sustainable Cold Chain Solutions Require Holistic Approaches

Jul 26, 2023

Caravan or convoy of trucks in line on a country highway

Cold chain, also called cool chain, refers to activities and equipment applied to maintain a constant low temperature for perishable products from production to final delivery to consumers. This temperature-controlled supply chain for manufacturing, processing, transporting, and distributing fresh consumer goods is both sensitive to climate change and tends to generate emissions at a higher rate than necessary.

Increased Cold Chain Demand Leads to Refrigeration Industry Growth—and Sustainability Concerns

Because keeping temperature in the optimal range is critical to maintaining freshness, refrigeration is one of the key technologies in cold chain solutions. The importance of cold chain refrigeration has recently been highlighted in the health sector, as some vaccines need to be stored at lower temperatures than conventional methods provide. For example, Softbox, a UK thermal shipping provider, collaborated with Pfizer to distribute COVID-19 vaccines using Softbox’s ultra-low temperature (ULT) solution. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at temperatures between -130°F (-90°C) and -76°F (-60°C), and Softbox’s ULT parcel shipper can maintain these temperatures for at least 10 days unopened.

Conventional cold chain refrigeration uses large amounts of energy and still relies on high global warming potential refrigerants, which are key contributors to climate change—in 2010, the food cold chain was estimated to contribute to around 1% of CO2 emissions globally. Additionally, ineffective refrigeration is responsible for 4.4 gigatons of CO2 equivalent annually from food spoilage, or around 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions—of which 1 gigaton is attributable to the inefficiency or absence of cold chains.

In a recent effort to reduce hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant use, the UK government has pledged a £4 million ($5.2 million) fund to the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-Chain to spur the adoption of more sustainable and efficient cold chain refrigeration. Guidehouse Insights’ recent Commercial Refrigeration report outlines other ongoing efforts toward sustainability in the commercial refrigeration sector, along with market trends.

Enhancing Sustainability Requires Whole-Industry Innovation

However, innovation in refrigeration alone cannot secure the sustainability of the entire cold chain industry. Sustainability can only be achieved when infrastructure and processes—such as delivery, packaging, warehouse, transportation, guidelines, and certification—are appropriately combined and coordinated. For instance, Coupang, a South Korean e-commerce company, contributes to reducing food waste by securing fresh food supply in advance for the mutual growth of suppliers and customers. And in 2020, Ocado, a British retail business, invested in a robotics company aiming to automate fresh food preparation.

Digital connection technology is also indispensable for cold chain innovation. In 2020, Carrier, a US HVAC manufacturer, announced a multiyear collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to develop a digital platform for managing temperature-controlled transportation and storage using AWS’ Internet of Things, analytics, and machine learning services to build on Carrier’s refrigeration and monitoring solutions.

Such holistic approaches are required to achieve sustainability in the rapidly changing global cold chain market. To achieve climate goals in this area, governments must consider policy development that encompasses the entire cold chain industry.