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Cold chain carbon: the road to net zero

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, reflects on recent governmental commitments to countrywide net zero carbon emissions. How much responsibility does the cold chain have in ensuring this challenging target is met?

Last year, to much fanfare, the UK parliament passed a law committing to carbon emissions from the UK economy being net zero by the year 2050. In the months since, especially during the general election, politicians engaged in what amounted to a game of rhetorical ‘top trumps’ on who could set a more ambitious sounding target. With the UK playing host to the world’s next major climate change summit this autumn the big question for all of us in cold chain logistics is – what does this target mean and how do we go about meeting it?  

Any business that has spent any time trying to set sustainability targets will immediately come up against the complexities of definitions and baselines. The UK’s net zero target is no different. ‘Net zero’ means that by 2050 the UK’s total emissions will be equal to, or less than, the emissions we remove from the environment. The baseline year for most climate policy is 1990 and so net zero means a 100% reduction in carbon emissions against that year’s emissions. It sounds simple, but as soon as you try to unpack it, the complexities tumble out.  

Collective target 

Net zero is a collective target, so who is responsible for what? Does every type of economic activity have to be zero carbon or is it about balancing trade-offs? The latter seems logical but who decides what trade-offs can be made? Also, what are we measuring? is it just the emissions we can directly see, such as smokestacks from power plants and vehicle exhaust fumes, or is it about the inbuilt carbon in the products we make and buy? What about the volumes of goods and service we import – how do they count towards a net zero target?  

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers and it would be futile to wait for the government to provide prescribed solutions to all of these questions, nor should we want them to. The kind of command and control involved in relying on the government to decide who gets to use what in a zero-carbon economy would be a nightmare. So instead it falls to every business and industry to make decisions and act for itself.  

There are some great examples out there, perhaps the most attention grabbing being the announcement last month that Sainsbury’s will invest £1 billion into being carbon neutral by 2040. There commitments include a dramatic reduction in primary energy use, a shift in fleet to low or zero carbon propulsion and reductions in plastic and food waste. Crucially, they are making a major commitment to transparency with external auditing and reporting inviting their customers to keep them honest.  

Sainsbury’s are just the latest in the consumer facing retail and manufacturing brands to make major commitments. I don’t want to talk down these commitments, these companies have to provide vital leadership role in driving sustainability through the supply chain, but it is easier to see the business case for these measures in these consumer facing companies.  

What really impresses me is those businesses without the same consumer facing reputation considerations making big changes. A company like Buffaload Logistics, for example, who are making a determined effort to dramatically reduce their carbon impact through major investment in vehicle refrigeration, or McCulla Transport and AgroMerchants (Whitchurch) that who have made game changing investments in renewable energy.  

Beyond boundaries 

Our collective individual action will get us some of the way to net zero, but the real game changer will be when we start to genuinely work together. Our carbon impact extends well beyond the boundaries of that which we directly control. At its worst the big brands can hide their carbon sins in the supply chain, either choosing to ignore all the principles they implement in their own business when they contract out supply chain activities, or more likely seeking to impose requirements that impose costs and burdens that they are not willing to pay extra for their suppliers to meet. 

We don’t want government to do it to us, but we do have to start thinking about how businesses across the whole supply chain can come together to agree targets, share data and commit to investment. For the past generation short termism has dominated logistics. The buyers of services have benefited from a sense of permanent instability, a focus on lowest cost and a lack of genuine consideration about whether the cost of services is genuinely sustainable.  

Services bought from one logistics provider today, can quickly shift to services bought from someone else tomorrow. This short termism, disincentives investment and, when it comes to infrastructure and equipment purchasing decisions, acts as a barrier to investing in the greenest options. A net zero supply chain may or may not be a completely realistic objective, but unless we come together and treat it as a shared problem, we won’t even get close. 

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