Diesel engine emissions are just the tip of the iceberg – refrigerated vehicles release over a hundred times more pollutants in Europe every day

Toby Peters
Around a million refrigerated vehicles travel on European roads every day (Source: Getty)
The world relies heavily on cold temperatures. 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.
The cooling in the vehicles that transport produce from A to B is often powered by an unregulated secondary diesel engine, which is inefficient and polluting. A million refrigerated vehicles run on European streets every day – delivering perishable goods to restaurants, supermarkets, warehouses, homes and hospitals.
Our research has found that these secondary engines for refrigerated vehicles can emit up to 29 times more potentially carcinogenic particulate matter and six times more nitrogen oxides than far larger, modern diesel truck engines. They also release 165 times as much particulate matter and 93 times as much nitrogen oxides as the latest diesel cars. As a result, one million refrigeration units create an environmental and health impact that's equivalent to 56 million diesel cars.
That’s pretty shocking, but it's by no means the end of the story. In the UK, 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 contributes to 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. Our research suggests that this year, the social cost of pollution from transport refrigeration alone could be as high as €2bn (£1.5bn).
Although there are around one million refrigerated vehicles in the EU, until now these hidden polluters have gone mostly unnoticed. Their cost to society has never been assessed – nor addressed through effective regulation. Surely that has to change?
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. New zero emission technology is rapidly becoming available, it is efficient and relatively low cost. In fact it could even deliver long term savings.
Zero-emission transport refrigeration is a rare case of a genuine triple win – for the environment, our health and the economy. But the time to act is now.

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