Carbon footprint of the cold chain

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Published: 08 June 2021


The International Institute of Refrigeration has issued a new Informatory Note on the carbon footprint of the cold chain. It follows a previous note on the role of refrigeration in worldwide nutrition published in March 2020. 

According to IIR estimates, 12 per cent of food produced globally in 2017 was lost due to an insufficient cold chain. A more extensive cold chain would limit the need to increase agricultural production to compensate for these losses and avoid the corresponding CO2 emissions. This raises the question of whether the additional CO2 emissions resulting from the implementation of a more extensive cold chain are not greater than the emissions avoided by reducing food losses due to a lack of refrigeration. 

To answer this key question, the IIR has developed a model to calculate CO2 emissions for each stage of the cold chain and for all countries in the world. This model allows to compare the CO2 emissions associated with the current global cold chain with those of an "improved" cold chain. The latter corresponds to a reasonable assumption in which the cold chain in all countries is brought to the same level of equipment and performance as that existing in developed countries. The following results are obtained: 

  • An improved global cold chain based on these principles would allow a reduction of almost 50 per cent of the CO2 emissions of the current cold chain. 
  • This improved cold chain would also avoid 55 per cent of the food losses attributable to the current cold chain. 

A summary for policymakers outlines the main conclusions and recommendations of this new Informatory Note and a methodological annex details the assumptions and main calculations made. 

The documents are available in both English and French, and are available to download here.