The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based NGO, has challenged U.K. retailer ASDA on its decision to deploy R410A-based air-conditioning equipment at four of its superstores.

The CIAT VECTIOS rooftop air-conditioning units, which use the HFC R410A as the refrigerant, were installed as part of a “rolling program of equipment replacement across its UK estate,” according to a February 2022 statement.

According to the manufacturer, the units offer high-efficiency, reliability and a competitive price-point. However, R410A has a 100-year GWP of 2,100 and a 20-year GWP of 4,400.

When asked by about its choice, ASDA stated that it was prioritizing energy efficiency over refrigerant GWP, but according to EIA Climate Campaigner Sophie Geoghegan, “R410A is simply not an environmentally responsible choice, even if paired with good energy efficiency.”

ASDA’s carbon commitments

In its “Creating Change for Better” strategy, ASDA states its commitment to lowering its direct GHG emissions by 50% by 2025, as well as transitioning to “lower emission refrigerants”. However, as pointed out by Geoghegan, this contradicts its decision to use R410A.

“It is hard to see how [ASDA’s] new air-con installation is in line with [its emissions reduction] commitment, given the direct emissions that will result from its choice of R410A,” said Geoghegan. 

“Future-proof, HFC-free cooling systems are available, and supermarkets have a responsibility to make better environmental choices and do their bit to help us all avoid climate catastrophe,” Geoghegan continued. “Installing a new R410A system when natural refrigerant solutions are energy-efficient, cost-effective and available runs counter to the phase-down and net-zero goals.”

“Installing a new R410A system when natural refrigerant solutions are energy-efficient, cost-effective and available runs counter to the phase-down and net-zero goals.”

Sophie Geoghegan, EIA

European supermarkets’ transition to natural refrigerants

The U.K. and EU F-Gas Regulation has spurred a move away from high-GWP HFCs like R410A and towards low-GWP HFCs and natural refrigerants in many sectors, including supermarkets. For example, since 2008, the number of EU supermarkets with transcritical CO2 (R744) systems has gone from 140 to over 40,000.

In recent years, numerous supermarkets have announced net-zero commitments, and many have been including natural refrigerant solutions as part of their emissions reductions strategies.

Another U.K. retailer, Tesco, as detailed in its 2022 annual report, has committed to “reducing refrigerant emissions across the store and distribution center network through switching from [f-gases] to CO2 systems.” In fact, in 2016, Tesco began using refrigerant-free evaporative cooling systems at some locations, which are expected to lower energy use by 80%. 

A third British supermarket chain, Waitrose, has upgraded the refrigeration systems in 18 of its stores to a water-cooled alternative over the last year – and aims to be HFC-free across its “core store refrigeration” by 2028, according to its 2021/22 Ethics and Sustainability Report.

German retailer Lidl has installed a CO2 ground-source heat pump that doubles as a chiller for air-conditioning in a store in the Netherlands, and according to the EIA, one Sainsbury’s store has reportedly saved one million kW/hours in a year by using its CO2 refrigeration system for heat recovery.

Geoghegan points out that while other U.K. supermarkets have “opted for greener air-conditioning systems with either lower-GWP refrigerants or no refrigerants at all … ASDA’s choice of [air-conditioning] system flies in the face of national commitments to phase down HFCs and net zero commitments to reduce emissions in line with the global goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C [2.7°F].”

Since the installation announcement was made in February, ASDA has told the EIA that the units were deployed as part of a small-scale “trial of the technology.” ASDA has also recently informed that a number of the units are no longer in operation.

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