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The cold chain in 2021

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Cold Chain Federation Chief Executive Shane Brennan talks COVID-19, Brexit and the pathway to net zero emissions.

Shane cropped.jpgIt’s been a challenging year already with our industry, but as it draws to a close we now face the disruption we have long anticipated, but are still under prepared for - the end of the Brexit withdrawal period on 31 December. The next six months will see major disruption and change, as the food supply chain adapts to new trade deal, complex border arrangements and restructured commercial relationships.

Yet there are compelling reasons for optimism for businesses operating in the cold chain.

The first lies in how the industry has faced the challenges of COVID-19, and what that means for the future. Throughout their responses to panic buying, orders changing by the day, and entire customer sector’s going into hibernation with no certain end in sight, cold chain business have shown themselves to be resilient, flexible and judicious. We come out of this year with new insight, new experience and new relationships that will stand the cold chain in good stead both for future times of crisis and future times of stability.

A second reason for confidence is in the persistence of investment and growth into the cold chain. New data published by the Cold Chain Federation and Savills confirms that UK cold storage continues to grow and remains an attractive investment. Demand continues to outstrip supply and in our changing world, cold chain services will be relied on more and more, year on year, at both UK and global levels.

The third cause for optimism is surely the most important for the future of the cold chain: progress towards a net zero cold chain ambition.

When the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and Brexit have passed, the UK will still have a mountain to climb to meet the Government’s national net zero ambitions. The cold chain has a crucial part to play, both in the huge climate benefits of reducing food waste and also in deliberately and pragmatically reducing the carbon emissions from our operations.

Rising energy prices, increasingly stringent Government legislation and commercial advantage will all drive this change. This year, for the first time the cold chain came together to share ideas and insight into how the industry can set out on a pathway towards becoming a net zero cold chain in the UK through the Cold Chain Federation’s Cold Chain Live! event series across four weeks in October.

A series of reports, thought leadership papers, expert interviews and virtual workshops throughout October examined what net zero means for the cold chain, what a pathway to net zero could look like, and the key opportunities and challenges for the industry within this ambition. Hundreds of cold chain professionals were involved, each playing their part in taking the industry forwards on this crucial issue.


To inform and guide the discussions we published a new report, Shaping the Future of the Cold Chain, setting out the main challenges and research priorities across different core elements of the UK cold chain.

Together we looked at how a collective net zero cold chain ambition can remain at the heart of our industry’s adaptation to rapid changes in food retailing, from innovation in last mile deliveries and in-store micro-fulfilment centres, to greater use of automation technologies.

Discussion about the challenge of a decarbonised future for refrigerated transport highlighted that the most promising technologies in development must be accelerated to provide viable alternatives enabling a transition away from diesel, but at the same time we need to look at bigger picture changes such as reconsidering the location of cold chain infrastructure and reimagining scheduling.

There was widespread agreement throughout the four weeks of the Cold Chain Live! events series that while there are good ‘quick win’ opportunities to cut carbon over the next few years, as an industry we also need to make progress on the more transformational opportunities for the medium and longer term, and we need to start now.

A key point for me is that the opportunities align with commercial efficiency: our future is full of low carbon tech that will help us reach net zero at the same time as improving cost and time efficiency for cold chain businesses.

This collaborative and comprehensive exploration of how the cold chain can set out a pathway to Net Zero was a major step forwards, but it is only the start. The Cold Chain Federation is committed to providing advice, insight and a forum for collaboration as the industry shifts the balance from exploration and planning to action and results. Look out next for our recommendations paper early in 2021, I look forward to discussing these recommendations with Cold Chain Federation members and working together for the strong, profitable and low carbon long-term future of our industry.

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