The world relies heavily on cold. The food we eat, the buildings we inhabit, the data we consume and the medicines that keep us healthy all need cooling. Getting food from the farm to our plates depends on a seamless network of refrigerated processing, storage and transport to ensure it arrives in good condition and doesn't go to waste.
Transport is vital: it's no good producing food and then just leaving it in a cold store; it needs to move quickly and efficiently from producer to consumer, and that requires a large fleet of refrigerated vehicles.
The problem is that those vehicles cause serious damage to the environment and health. The vast majority of refrigerated trucks use diesel-powered refrigeration, and burning diesel leads to emissions of not only CO2 but also toxic particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Worse, in many refrigerated vehicles the cooling is powered by a secondary diesel engine that is generally inefficient and can emit many times more air pollution than the propulsion engine hauling it around. Yet more absurd, in some countries these secondary engines are even allowed to run on highly subsidised 'red' diesel, meaning taxpayers' money is being used to support the polluters, and prevent clean cold technologies from gaining a foothold.
The impacts of this kind of air pollution are felt right across Europe. In the EU, it causes more than 400 000 premature deaths each year, and chronic ill-health for many more. This imposes a heavy social cost on every European nation. Refrigerated vehicles also leak highly potent climate-warming HFC refrigerants, although our analysis shows that this problem is less significant than generally thought.
Although there are around one million refrigerated vehicles in the EU, until now these hidden polluters have gone all but unnoticed. Their cost to society has never been assessed - until now - nor addressed through effective regulation.
As the European Commission begins to formulate its Heating and Cooling Strategy, we have a precious opportunity to clean up transport refrigeration. The good news is that although refrigerated vehicles are grossly disproportionate polluters, transport refrigeration can be made lower carbon and zero-emission while simultaneously reducing costs.
Zero-emission transport refrigeration is a rare case of a genuine triple win - for the environment, our health and the economy. The time to act is now.