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Sobeys Shows How to Forestall Climate Change

I am one of those people who believe that climate change in the form of global warming is real. I’m not a climate scientist, but I am willing to defer to 97% of the world’s climate scientists who believe that climate change is real. Reading about the latest freak tornado doesn’t tend to change my mind.

Of course, the U.S. government, with some exceptions, is limited now in what it can do to stem the stream of fossil-fuel-generated carbon emissions that are the primary source of climate change. Oddly enough, though, food retailers are in a position to do something about climate change — not  just the part caused by fossil fuels, but the part caused by refrigerants.

The synthetic refrigerants retailers have been using to chill and freeze food have a long history of being bad for the environment, notably R-22, an HCFC gas that depletes the ozone layer. That refrigerant is being phased out, per the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, in its place, retailers have turned to HFC gases that, while harmless to the ozone layer, contribute massively to global warming. At current rates, F-gases like HFCs could be responsible for 9% to 19% of annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

But retailers don’t have to use HFCs. As this week’s Retail feature story illustrates, Sobeys, Canada’s second largest grocery chain, has committed to deploying transcritical refrigeration systems that employ carbon dioxide (CO2), a natural gas that in this context contributes negligibly to global warming compared to synthetic refrigerants. Sobeys is the first North American retailer to install transcritical systems, but many U.S. retailers are poised to explore this type of refrigeration.

Of course, retailers are not environmentalists — they need a business reason to do this, and Sobeys cites many cost-saving elements in its new system.

The switch to natural or low-GWP (global warming potential) alternatives is far from simple. For example, in replacing R-22, which is a practical necessity for retailers, they can’t simply “drop-in” CO2, though there are many HFC refrigerants capable of being dropped in.

Still, following Sobeys’ lead, retailers should start exploring ways of transitioning to non-HFC refrigerants, a move that would help buy the international community time to deal with the other causes of climate change.

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