HFCs from MNC food chains: Major spoilers of India’s carbon footprint

India needs patience and resilience to play the climate game

Exponential growth of commercial refrigeration should sync with gradual phaseout of existing HFC emitting equipment

Major food chains, especially those run by MNCs in India, are reluctant to upgrade their refrigeration to phase out technologies that emit HFC (Hydrofluorocarbons) that are thousands of times more harmful than CO2. These businesses are enjoying double-digit growth and are boasting ambitious projections in the near term. Their reluctance to adopt sustainable practices is a worry.

Most of the MNC food chains in India are growing very fast and have ambitious growth targets for the near term. However, they might not find the future growth path very smooth if a critical aspect of their operations in India – refrigeration, is reviewed in relation to a recent report by EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency). The EIA report clearly states that most of these MNC food chains in India are among the largest contributors of HFC that are said to be hundreds to thousands of times more damaging to climate than carbon dioxide. The problem is, most of these MNC food chains in India with huge refrigeration infrastructure all across the country, are hardly doing anything to alter or upgrade their refrigeration technologies here to curtail release of HFCs although they are
happy to be doing so in Europe and North America.

ofcwzbekowutbhnAny observer of the Indian economy would not need a cue to connect this problem to India’s stance at the Paris Climate Conference where the Indian side argued that the developed countries would have to be more forthcoming in sharing greener and more efficient energy technologies than they have been so far. The issue of MNC food chains’ reluctance to adopt alternate refrigeration technologies in India that do not emit the super harmful HFCs is a likely case in point that Indian climate negotiators might bring up on the table at some point in future. It could turn out to be a tricky situation if the massive HFC pollution in India by MNC food chains from the very countries pressurizing India to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, becomes a major issue at the negotiations.

Going by the growth targets of the MNC food chains that are already well established in India, as well as those that have just about started their operations along with others that are about to enter the Indian market, the HFC emission load here could go berserk if alternate refrigeration technologies are not adopted soon. The booming fast food industry in India is projected to grow from about $ 15 billion now to over $ 50 billion in the next 5 years and this means there will be a three-fold increase in refrigeration equipment such as reach-in refrigerators and freezers, walk-in coolers and freezers, ice-machines, under-counter refrigerators and freezers, refrigerated prep tables, soda fountain machines and ice-cream machines.

The need for low GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigeration technologies is, of course, felt beyond the fast food market in cold storage warehouses, as well as refrigerated transport systems. Incidentally, these two refrigeration mechanisms are critical for the success of Save Food, a sustainable initiative aimed at minimizing food wastage, which is around 40% in India. There is no way the MNC food chains can ride their high growth rates in India and continue to ignore the unacceptable levels of HFC load they are piling up here even as India faces pressure to comply with international GHG (Green House Gas) norms. HFC is a ‘Super Green House Gas’ and it is easy to see why – the variant used for commercial refrigeration, HFC-404A, is 4,000 times more damaging to the climate than CO2. Just a handful of these MNC food chains in India will churn out the carbon equivalent of burning about 472 million kgs of coal or the annual emissions from over 2 lakh cars.

Interestingly, India is facing enormous pressure at the international climate talks to drastically reduce its carbon footprint from the very OECD countries that want India to open up her economy for MNCs from those very countries to do business here. If the reluctance of MNC food chains in India to use low GWP refrigeration technologies is taken as a case in point, Indian climate and trade negotiators have their work cut out. They will have to be firm on access to updated green technologies for Indian businesses in return for easier access to the Indian market. These could be long-drawn affairs as they often tend to get embroiled with international geo-politics and trade wars. Indian negotiators would have to balance national priorities with international compulsions.

This article has inputs from a report published by Environmental Investigation Agency.

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