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End-users in the dock

Nicholas Cox gives his personal perspective on how supermarkets should adapt more quickly to the times

Will corporate and social responsibility (CSR) be enough to avert the climate change crisis or will we need to replace the Kyoto Protocol with something much more prescriptive, and include bans and phase-outs?  

CSR successes to-date have been limited, but the ‘Greenfreeze’ revolution in 1992 has resulted in more than 300 million domestic fridges using hydrocarbon refrigerants without any legislation to force the uptake of this technology.

It is not yet clear whether the actions of UK supermarkets are demonstrating the success of CSR, or its failure. At RAC 07, senior representatives of six major supermarkets said they believed the long-term viability of HFC refrigerants was undermined by their high global warming potential (GWP). Continued large-scale reliance on HFCs was also inconsistent with their high profile environmental policies. As a result, the supermarkets said they would be investing in new technologies based on natural refrigerants such as CO2 and hydrocarbons.

Fast-forward to RAC 09 in March, and what progress has been made? The two supermarket chains absent from the RAC 07 panel demonstrated that they have achieved as much as the original six and one expressed its commitment to stop using HFCs in new-build and major retrofits.

Honesty is the best policy

The honesty and directness of the RAC 09 speakers was commendable. One admitted to a reduction in leakage from 29 per cent in 2006, to 24 per cent this year. At that rate they are still 14 years away from achieving the IOR’s target of zero leakage and well outside the timeframe of the 2011 F-Gas Review.

But global annual refrigerant leakage is running at 27.8 per cent, so despite voluntary initiatives on leakage reduction, UK supermarkets are still little better than the global average.

So were the RAC 07 commitments genuine examples of CSR in action, or a cynical attempt to prevent further EU F-Gas legislation by claiming that the sector has a voluntary agreement in place? Please look at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) supermarket report at www.chillingfacts.org.uk and make up your own mind. My own view is that a number of supermarkets were genuinely committed to HFC phase-out in new equipment, but that none would have achieved this objective before the 2011 F-Gas Review if the EIA had not very publicly intervened.

Bans work

By the time we get to RAC 11, the F-Gas Review will be upon us and we will be discussing the third annual EIA supermarket report. If future reports generate as much interest as the first then the issue will have remained on the agenda of supermarket board meetings, funds and resources will have been made available, and those who choose to do so will have become HFC-free for new installations. I expect about half of the major supermarkets to have achieved this milestone.

Will this be enough to head off further F-Gas restrictions? Probably not - the mobile air conditioning industry turned down the chance to enter into a voluntary agreement, and as a result from 1 January 2011, the MAC (mobile air-conditioning) Directive bans new car models containing refrigerant with a GWP greater than 150.

European legislators understand that bans work, and the F-Gas Directive is likely to be extended to all non-essential uses from 2017. Those wishing to claim an essential use exemption will need to apply for licenses, with onerous leakage reporting requirements.

Despite some impressive developments, particularly with CO2, the rac industry as a whole is still struggling to come to terms with the scale and speed of the change process. The problem is that a convoy can only move as fast as the slowest vessel - and the rac industry still includes some very slow vessels.

Nicholos Cox is managing director of Earthcare Products. As a leading authority on environmentally friendly refrigeration he sat on the steering committee for the Chilling Facts investigation into supermarket cooling.