How significant are refrigeration units in terms of the climate footprint of the German transport sector? A detailed study from the Smart Mobility Institute explains.

Germany is to become climate-neutral by 2045 – that’s the federal government’s goal in response to the 2015 Paris Agreement. There is particularly large potential for reductions in the Germany transport sector, especially in freight transport. The demand for fresh and frozen products is also steadily growing, which means that the emissions from refrigeration units installed in commercial vehicles and trailers have to be taken into account as well when considering overall transport emissions.

The importance of low-emission refrigeration systems for achieving climate goals is outlined in the study entitled: ‘Climate-friendly refrigeration systems for road freight transport – market overview and decarbonisation potential’, prepared by the Smart Mobility Institute of the Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences on behalf of NOW. The study provides a comprehensive overview of refrigerated transport and describes the status quo along with solutions currently available on the market. It shows which vehicle variants and fields of application are currently covered and what legal framework conditions apply. It also discusses the development of current registration figures. The question of where refrigerated transport is used and the level of traffic within Germany is also addressed by the study.

Refrigerated transport has the potential to save over 7 million tonnes of CO2

With 75,631 vehicles from the N2 and N3 classes and primarily trailers from the 03 and 04 classes in the year 2022, refrigerated transport logistics has already a significant share of overall freight transport in Germany today, at 5.72 per cent. This impacts both the volume of traffic as well as a share of 2,891,496 tonnes of CO2 in the greenhouse gas emissions of the transport sector. The trailers used in temperature-controlled logistics with the body type ‘with insulated walls and refrigeration’ and the O3 and O4 classes, increase the greenhouse gas emissions produced in refrigeration logistics by a further 4,541,519 tonnes of CO2. That means there is a savings potential of greenhouse gas emissions in the temperature-controlled logistics sector that totals around 7.43 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

A large portion of refrigerated transport is currently conducted by road. A greater pivot of this type of transport to other modes, such as rail, would in principle, be an option that would save many greenhouse gas emissions. Additional alternatives to today’s regular diesel refrigeration systems would include electric recuperation axles, battery and fuel cell-based refrigeration systems as well as solar-based electricity generation in the trailer.

Refrigerants with a high climate impact

Furthermore, exchanging refrigerants for those with less of a harmful impact on the climate represents a high potential for emission reduction. Compared to the greenhouse gas CO2, refrigerants often have a greenhouse gas effect that is many times higher. Therefore, even simple and quickly implementable modifications to the coolants can have a positive effect on the greenhouse gas intensity of temperature-controlled transport.

Finally, the study offers several recommendations for action which could reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions produced by refrigerated transport as well as create further incentives for the development of more climate-friendly refrigerated vehicles. These include the shift to rail transport, avoidance of transport through optimized logistics, building of refuelling and charging infrastructure for fuel cell and battery-electric commercial vehicles (including those that can also be used for refrigeration systems in parallel), the further development of vehicle technology, a consistent replacement of refrigerants with those that have less of a harmful impact on the climate as well as the adaptation of existing federal government funding programmes to the special requirements of refrigerated transport.

A summary of the study is available for download here. The complete study can be downloaded here.

Those interested have the opportunity to discuss the results in detail with the authors of the study in an online seminar hosted by NOW and the SMI on 20/07/23. You can register for the online seminar here.