BOSTON (MainStreet) — A report released last week by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that a dozen of the largest U.S. supermarkets are doing a dismal job of reining in their hydrofluorocarbon emissions.
The reason this matters? HFC is a potent greenhouse gas, with a much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, sometimes by as much as 4,000 times.
The report looked at the HFC emissions of a dozen retailers, including Target (TGT) - Get Target Corporation Report , Wal-Mart (WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report , Costco (COST) - Get Costco Wholesale Corporation Report , Safeway (SWY) , Whole Foods (WFC) - Get Wells Fargo & Company Report and Delhaize (DEG) , which owns Food Lion and Bottom Dollar Food. Of all of the retailers EIA analyzed, Delhaize America performed the best and Costco the worst. Yet none of the stores passed the EIA's standards despite all being members of the Consumer Goods Forum, an international network of the world's largest retailers that committed to phasing out HFCs back in 2010.
According to the EIA, the widespread use of HFC in the retail industry has led to it becoming one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average U.S. supermarket emits as much HFCs per year as 365 cars.
And it's only getting worse.
In fact, emission of HFCs, which are used in refrigerators and air conditioning units, has been growing by 10% to 15% annually. If efforts aren't undertaken to restrict them, the emissions are expected to make up 9% of all greenhouse gases by 2050.
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"The results from the survey are not just disappointing but shocking, given that climate-friendly alternative technologies are available in the marketplace," Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told McClatchy.
In a telephone interview, Thornton said CO2 and ammonia-based refrigerants would be much more sustainable and climate-friendly options and could easily be used in new and existing operations, as they are already in widespread use at stores throughout Canada, Japan and the European Union.
Wal-Mart, as the most profitable company, should take the lead in tackling the problem of HFC emissions head on, he says. It has 125 stores and two Sam's Club locations using "hybrid technology" of HFC and non-HFC refrigerants.
"At Wal-Mart, we're committed to reducing our carbon footprint, and we're working with our suppliers to do the same," Christopher Schraeder, senior manager of sustainability communications at Wal-Mart, said in an email.
Meanwhile, Whole Foods recently installed a secondary system in one of their Boulder, Colo., stores that reduced refrigerant charges by 76%; this makes it their 34th store to use this system. It also has five locations that use all-natural refrigerant systems and plans to open a completely HFC-free store in Brooklyn by the end of the year.
"When it comes to HFCs and other refrigerants, Whole Foods Market implemented a companywide refrigerant management program several years ago and utilizes refrigerant leak detection systems in many locations," said Mike Ellinger, the chain's global maintenance and refrigeration coordinator. "As for the forthcoming Brooklyn store, we are looking at all possible ways to reduce our footprint, promote environmental stewardship and create one of the most unique and environmentally friendly grocery stores ever opened."
HFCs came into popular use after refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons were phased out of use in the 1980s and '90s as part of the Montreal Protocol due to their ozone-depleting impacts on the environment. Unlike those refrigerants, HFCs do not contain chlorine and therefore do not affect the ozone layer.
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They rank sixth in terms of the human-produced greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, though. And some forms of HFCs have much more global warming potential than others, ranging from hundreds to thousands of times that of carbon. This means even a change in the kind of HFCs that are used in industrial refrigerators and AC units could drastically minimize harmful emissions.
This past summer, President Barack Obama highlighted HFCs as a top priority of his Climate Action Plan. During his speech on climate change, he also referred to his recent agreement with President Xi Jinping of China to cut use jointly.
"We intend to take more steps together in the months to come," Obama said. "It will make a difference. It's a significant step in the reduction of carbon emissions."
On the domestic front, the Obama administration plans to authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to remove some of the most dangerous HFCs from the market.
It's a move Thornton hopes will send a strong market signal to U.S. retailers and their customers on this issue.
"I think most people would be very concerned if they realized how much of these greenhouse gases the stores are allowing to be vented into the atmosphere," Thornton says. "The retailers have a responsibility to their customers and we would urge consumers to urge the stores they patronize to be more active in cutting emissions."
— By Laura Kiesel