Cooling and energy consumption – how sustainable it is?

Today’s food system is built upon refrigeration. Temperature control is a feature of almost every stage in the supply chain. Cooling has become a necessity for sustaining current food supply chains and global food expectations.

Refrigeration dependency is the result of a number of social, economic and technological developments. For example, due to increased household incomes, people started having more money to spend but less time to shop for food, which pushed the development of supermarkets and house refrigeration. Also, people’s food preferences changed, with a higher demand for processed and frozen meals, and also for foods not locally produced, such as foreign fruit and vegetables that travel long distances.

As a consequence, effective longer-term safe food storage along the supply chain has become vital for maintaining current food systems. The relationships between refrigeration, packaging, food transport, food product innovations and various socio-economic developments have helped create cultural norms and practices that are highly energy-dependent.

Findings of a recent study from OECD/IEA, states the final energy use for space cooling in residential and commercial buildings worldwide tripled between 1990 and 2016 to 2020 terawatt hours. Cooling accounted for nearly 19% of total electricity use in buildings, up from 13% in 1990.

According to FAO, the food sector accounts for around 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and around 22% of total GHG emissions. Just refrigerated storage can account for up to 10% of the total carbon footprint for some products when taking into account electricity inputs, the manufacturing of cooling equipment, and GHG emissions from lost refrigerants.

There are big differences between countries and regions in the level of and trends in energy use for space cooling, mainly due to the underlying need for cooling and the level and pace of economic development. This is reflected in the per-capita levels of energy consumption, which varies from as little as 70 kilowatt hours (kWh) in India to more than 800 kWh in Japan and Korea and as high as 1880 kWh in the United States (OECD/IEA 2018).

The United States remains by far the world’s biggest cooling user. In fact, 328 million Americans consume more energy for cooling than the 4.4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia (excluding China), and just under the total amount of electricity used by the 1.2 billion people in Africa (OECD/IEA 2018).

Africa has some of the hottest locations on the planet, but cooling ownership is still typically below 5%. Consumption of electricity for cooling amounted to a mere 35 kWh per person on average in 2016.

Avoiding refrigeration dependence is difficult when economic development brings higher demand for food safety, freshness, and quality, and when some economies depend on exporting food to more industrialized countries. The big concern is how sustainable will this demand for cooling and refrigeration be?

Considering world’s limited reserves of fossil fuels, with volatile and rising prices, posses concerns on how this will impact on the future food supply chains and the urgent need to rethink the role of energy when considering options for improving food systems.

FAO recommends, through the concept of “energy-smart” food systems, making a gradual shift to more energy-efficient food systems that make greater use of renewable energy technologies may be the most viable solution for simultaneously reducing fossil fuel dependency, improving productivity in the food sector and addressing energy-poverty in rural areas.

The key message of “energy-smart” food systems, is that food production cannot be decoupled from energy consumption, but options towards efficient consumption and energy autonomy exist. This is especially important to rural communities, as moving into renewable energy resources, they can produce and preserve more food, raise incomes and improve livelihoods, by harnessing them to deliver energy services, such as lighting and communication that can improve local education and health services and raise the quality of life for individual families.

The Future of Cooling. OECD and IEA. 2018

Energy Smart Food Systems. FAO. 2011