U.S. Supermarkets Fall Short in Phasing Out Potent Greenhouse Gases, Report Finds

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Open for Business, Closed to Climate Progress: Most U.S. Supermarkets Lag in Reducing Harmful Refrigerants (Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash)

by | May 15, 2024

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The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has unveiled its third bi-annual Climate-Friendly Supermarket Scorecard, evaluating major U.S. supermarket chains on their efforts to mitigate the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, have a climate impact thousands of times greater than CO2. Despite the availability of eco-friendly alternatives, the report reveals that out of sixteen companies assessed, only three achieved passing scores, highlighting a significant gap in industry-wide adoption of sustainable practices.

Technology adoption remains critical in reducing HFCs. The Supermarket Scorecard evaluates each company’s refrigeration system adoption rate, emphasizing ultra-low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants (<10 GWP). ALDI, Target, and Whole Foods demonstrated significant progress in replacing high-GWP refrigerants, with ALDI achieving the top score in technology adoption. Despite Walmart’s public commitment to eliminate HFCs by 2040, the retailer has only installed ultra-low GWP systems in one store, lacking specific implementation milestones for the more than 4,000 Walmart stores operating in the U.S.

While commitments to phase out HFCs are rising, adoption must catch up. Incremental improvements across nine of sixteen companies highlight that a more focused strategy is necessary to achieve meaningful results. Stakeholders and companies must collaborate on transparent, actionable implementation plans to facilitate widespread ultra-low GWP refrigerant adoption.

Progress and Shortcomings in Management Practices

Refrigerant management practices play a pivotal role in reducing HFC emissions. The scorecard reveals a decline in this category, with Meijer leading the way by achieving an annual leak rate of 6.5%, far below the EPA sector average of 25%. Only five companies disclosed their leak rates, underscoring a transparency gap. Addressing this issue requires adopting best practices, such as the EPA GreenChill initiative, which aims for a less than 5% leak rate.

Meijer’s success showcases the effectiveness of stringent management policies. With the industry’s refrigerant emissions equal to burning 65 billion pounds of coal annually, supermarkets must reduce leaks by upgrading monitoring and repair protocols. Corporate transparency around refrigerant emissions is essential for demonstrating progress and effectively engaging stakeholders.

Call to Action: Moving Toward Climate-Friendly Refrigeration

The EIA calls for supermarkets to take decisive action to phase out HFCs by 2035, including a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030. New builds and retrofits should exclusively utilize HFC-free refrigeration. Recycled and reclaimed refrigerants can sustain older equipment, while corporate leak rates should meet GreenChill standards.

Implementing zero-tolerance leak policies and making emissions data public will help track progress and establish achievable goals, while incorporating energy efficiency measures like LED lighting and night shades can significantly lower supermarket refrigeration’s climate footprint.

The increasing corporate commitments are promising but require a concerted industry-wide effort to meet ambitious targets. Achieving transparency and engagement with policy stakeholders will be vital to phasing out these super pollutants, safeguarding the climate, and establishing a new standard for refrigeration.

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