The Problem at Walmart
Green America recently launched Cool It, our campaign to address harmful emissions causing the climate crisis. The campaign focuses on hydrofluorocarbons, or “HFCs”, extremely potent greenhouse gases that are used as refrigerants in refrigerators and A/C Units.
HFCs are leaking into the atmosphere from faulty equipment and irresponsible disposal, which is dangerous because of their high global warming potential. HFCs have thousands of times the warming power of CO2, meaning there’s an urgency to address these short-lived, heavily polluting gases.
A quarter of refrigerant used at a typical supermarket leaks out every year, so we’re urging companies to act, beginning with Walmart.
Our campaign urges Walmart to improve its refrigerant practices, as it reports that HFCs make up nearly half of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has also urged Walmart once again to at least catch up to other supermarkets and be more transparent on this issue.
Walmart has recently stated that it is making “great progress” on the goals of our campaign, but their own HFC emissions data and a lack of specifics on any new actions taken in the past five years tells a different story.
Walmart claims it reduced refrigerant emissions by 10 percent between 2016 and 2018.
From 2012 to 2017, Walmart’s HFC emissions increased by 43.6 percent while the number of stores only increased by 4.7 percent (see below graph).
It claims to use best practices for maintenance and monitoring refrigerant systems.
But it has not joined the EPA GreenChill Program on refrigerant management or publicly disclosed its corporate average refrigerant leak rate.
Walmart says it’s looking for ways to prevent energy waste and improve refrigerant performance in new systems.
It has not provided any details on best practices employed for maintenance of equipment to reduce leaks and maintain high energy efficiency.
Walmart stated that it operates hundreds of facilities that are near HFC-free utilizing carbon dioxide and ammonia alternatives.
No public information has been made available to confirm that Walmart has piloted or installed even one HFC-free supermarket refrigeration system.
Unfortunately, Walmart has a history of claims using vague language to describe its refrigerant practices without releasing target goals or timelines. For example, Walmart committed to begin phasing out HFC refrigerants starting in 2015, however its HFC emissions proceeded to increase by 16 percent the following year.
The below graph shows Walmart’s reported HFC emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project, reflecting all publicly available data from 2005 to 2017 (the last year for which there is reported data). The bottom line is that Walmart’s emissions from HFCs were significantly higher in 2017 than in the baseline year of 2005. And from 2012 to 2017, HFC emissions increased by 43.6 percent while the number of stores only increased by 4.7 percent.
As shown below, the company’s HFC emissions were steadily increasing from 2005 to 2009. They remained relatively stable through 2011, followed by a slight decrease in emissions in 2012.
Then from 2012 to 2014, there was a significant increase. During this time, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published its report on supermarket emissions and refrigerant practices, which Walmart was cited as one of the “dirty dozen” companies. As the report lays out, Walmart is a member of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which committed to begin phasing out HFCs starting in 2015.
In fact, the report notes that after Walmart had signed CGF’s pledge to meet this goal, the company continued opening hundreds of locations without even a single one using HFC-free refrigeration. Walmart achieved a decrease in HFC emissions in 2015, the year the pledge went into effect, but in 2016 those emissions jumped again by nearly 20 percent, followed by a slight decrease in 2017.
Even if Walmart could return to its 2005 baseline (a 50 percent reduction from current levels) this would still be roughly 1.4 million metric tons of HFC emissions per year, the equivalent of 300,000 cars on the road.
Graph 1. Data sourced from Walmart’s Carbon Disclosure Project.
As the 2013 EIA report also noted, Walmart was using a secondary loop refrigeration system that combined carbon dioxide and HFCs in “over 125 stores” (representing just 1 percent of existing stores at the time). While Walmart states that it operates “hundreds of facilities” with near HFC-free alternatives, we ask for the company to increase its transparency on this process to demonstrate recent progress relative to its now 11,200 locations worldwide.
The company also claims that its strategy calls for moving to low- and ultra-low GWP refrigerant options. However, it has not released a comprehensive policy with a targeted goal and date for phasing out HFCs from all facilities and replacing with zero or near-zero GWP options.
And lastly, Walmart states that it is looking to reduce its refrigerant leaks. As Section 608 of the Clean Air Act stipulates, if a commercial refrigeration system leaks more than 20 percent of an ozone-depleting substance, there is a timeline required to repair that leak. But Walmart has not publicly released its average leak rate or any goals to decrease that rate, even though it is considered best practice to report this information.
Walmart is notably not a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenChill Partnership, which requires companies to set goals for reducing leaks annually, report data on progress, and achieve less than a 15 percent leak rate for certified stores. Many of its competitors are members of this program, such as Aldi, Kroger, Publix, Target, and Whole Foods.
Furthermore, in contrast to Walmart, supermarkets identified by the Environmental Investigation Agency as leaders on this issue have taken much more comprehensive steps to address refrigerant emissions, including installing HFC-free refrigeration in hundreds of stores, adopting explicit goals to improve refrigerant management, and by providing updates through annual corporate social responsibility reports and reporting data to the EPA.
A Call to Action for Walmart Shoppers
Green America continues to call on Walmart to set a concrete timeline and plan for phasing out HFCs from all its facilities that is as aggressive as the realities of climate change demand. With dire timelines and projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the effects of the climate crisis already threatening communities worldwide, eliminating these extremely potent greenhouse gases must be a priority.
The company’s CEO announced its sustainability goals back in 2016 by pointing to a “new era of trust and transparency.” We are asking Walmart to follow through on these statements with a comprehensive and transparent plan for phasing out HFC refrigerants to address this significant impact on the climate.