The lockdown period has been a significantly testing time for many, but the restrictions have had an undeniably positive impact on the environment. With major events cancelled, large construction work put on hold and the hospitality sector forced to close its doors, the reduction in travel has led to a vast improvement in air quality.
Yet, the positive figures we have seen could and should have been even better. The significant increase in cold food delivery has led to more usage of emission-heavy transport refrigeration units (TRUs) on the roads. The pandemic has shown collective action can have a major impact. Businesses in our sector must take heed of this and as a first step start effectively monitoring their emissions, so we can build towards a carbon-free cold chain.
One of the few silver linings of the global crisis has been the positive impact on the environment and improvement in air quality. The latest statistics from Environmental Protection UK have shown that the presence of nitrogen dioxide, a key component of poor air quality released by diesel engines, was down by 60% in some parts of the country. We have also seen a 31% reduction in CO2 emissions in April according to Nature Climate Change. This paints an optimistic overall picture, but if we were able to dig deeper into the data, we would undoubtedly find some industries not contributing to this decrease at all.
The cold chain was one of only a few industries which saw an increase in demand of its services. Figures from Kantar show supermarket sales were up 14.3% on average by the middle of May, with certain retailers seeing a surge in demand of 23.7%. Whilst good news for the supermarkets, it resulted in further transport refrigeration emissions of NOx and CO2, undermining the savings made in other areas.
The logistics industry is becoming more cognisant of the need to move away from its heavy dependence on dirty diesel TRUs. Whilst these units are improving, they continue to be a significant source of pollution. No matter how much they improve, they will still pollute our air. There have been many studies published that estimate the pollution caused by diesel TRUs, but no empirical evidence to accurately quantify how much. Without this data, we cannot begin to tackle the problem.
There are various routes the industry can take to address these emissions. Moving to fully electric TRUs would be the silver-bullet, but the monitoring of fuel consumption is a sensible and effective interim step for most. Buy-in is needed at all levels. If the Government is serious about tackling climate change and improving air quality, it must begin to encourage and incentivise businesses to accurately measure their emissions.
Solar panels and electric cars have been subject to financial incentive schemes in recent years, accelerating the adoption of clean technology. More than 800,000 homes were fitted with solar panels via an Ofgem initiative and this year’s Budget pledged an additional £533m to support the buyers of electric cars, vans and taxis. Where is the Government’s support for the cold chain?
In the absence of incentives, logistics companies and retailers must take it upon themselves to monitor their diesel consumption in detail. By recording this data, businesses open the door to a variety of financial and operational benefits, not just environmental. For example, there are handsome cost and efficiency savings to be made for those who can identify their least efficient units and only use them on the less demanding duty cycles, saving the best units for the most difficult jobs.
It is undeniable that the cold chain is responsible for significant pollution and is often overlooked by policy makers. With the rapid advancement of clean technology, it is only a matter of time before diesel products become financially and environmentally unsustainable. It is down to the Government to accelerate this transition by empowering businesses to move away from diesel. The first step to reducing our industry’s fuel consumption is to fully understand it, only then can we make effective and decisive steps in our journey to a cold chain completely free of carbon.
Michael Lowe is Co-founder and CEO of Sunswap Ltd, a clean technology business developing zero-emission transport refrigeration solutions.