The Grocer 3 March 2021

Food and net zero: cold chain transport

Shane Brennan, Chief Executive of the Cold Chain Federation

The way cold food moves is changing, fast. When the modern refrigerated van, truck and trailer became a cold chain mainstay in the 1950s and 60s, it was a technological revolution that transformed food and pharmaceutical safety, reduced waste and became the foundation for modern trade, manufacturing, and retail. As the world starts to get serious about net zero carbon, we are on the cusp of the next cold chain revolution.

Robust, reliable, refrigerated vehicles are vital to how the UK’s food supply chain is organised. Without them we would not have had the supermarkets, convenience stores and food service growth of the past three decades, nor would the food industry be able to service the exponential growth in demand for home delivery that has been cemented during the covid crisis.

This fundamental good can sometimes feel a bit lost in the growing scrutiny of the impact of vehicle refrigeration on air quality and carbon emissions. Nonetheless, as vehicle engine innovation has ramped up, the fridge has been somewhat left behind. This innovation lag is about to be corrected and my sense is that the next five years will be a period of dramatic change in temperature-controlled food transport.

A key driver of this change, as ever, is cost. From April 2022 refrigerated hauliers will no longer be permitted to use subsidised ‘red’ diesel, the Cold Chain Federation estimates this will mean c. £100m a year in direct additional costs for refrigerated hauliers. Ministers have been convinced this tax hike is justified because ‘subsidised’ diesel has held back the shift to non-diesel alternatives like hybrid power, battery electric, and cryogenic fuels. That theory will now be tested in the food supply chain.

Operators remain sceptical. Cost is a major factor for sure, but there are also questions about reliability, range, infrastructure and the complexities of managing a mixed fleet of different technology types. For all its promise of support with transition, we are still to see anything the genuinely reduces the cost or risk from Government.

Alongside taxation change, there are also strong pressures for tougher action to regulate refrigeration equipment and restrict movement in urban areas. These pressures require food logistics businesses to consider two complementary responses.

The first is to embrace the potential of diesel alternatives. Scepticism is healthy, but innovation in diesel alternatives is fast paced, concerns over reliability need to be fairly compared to the existing familiar technology, and as take up increases so will affordability.

The second is for the food supply chain to consider the challenge from first principles. The cost of operating refrigerated vehicles on the road is only going to increase. The restrictions on what can operate where (especially in servicing cities) is only going to get tighter. Finding ways to reduce the volume of vehicles on the road to drive efficiencies within and between the food supply chain will be as important as investing in equipment that allows the continuation of business as usual.

The fridge makes a small contribution to food logistics emissions and is a fraction of the overarching challenge of decarbonising the UK economy. But it is knotty problem with far reaching implications. The way the food supply chain and Government work together will be a test of how we go about managing a necessary transition in a way that turns a problem into constructive change for business and the environment.

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