The carbon footprint of cold chain food flows in the United States

Junren Wang, Deniz Berfin Karakoc, Megan Konar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The food system is an important contributor to carbon dioxide (CO 2) emissions. The refrigerated food supply chain is an energy-intensive, nutritious and high-value part of the food system, making it particularly important to consider. In this study, we develop a novel model of cold chain food flows between counties in the United States. Specifically, we estimate truck transport via roadways of meat and prepared foodstuffs for the year 2017. We use the roadway travel distance in our model framework rather than the haversine distance between two locations to improve the estimate for long-haul freight with a temperature-controlled system. This enables us to more accurately calculate the truck fuel consumption and CO 2 emissions related to cold chain food transport. We find that the cold chain transport of meat emitted 8.4 × 10 6 t CO 2 yr −1 and that of prepared foodstuffs emitted 14.5 × 10 6 t CO 2 yr −1, which is in line with other studies. Meat has a longer average refrigerated transport distance, resulting in higher transport CO 2 emissions per kg than processed foodstuffs. We also find that CO 2 emissions from cold chain food transport are not projected to significantly increase under the temperatures projected to occur with climate change in 2045. These county-level cold chain food flows could be used to inform infrastructure investment, supply chain decision-making and environmental footprint studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number021002
JournalEnvironmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2022


  • United States
  • carbon footprint
  • cold chain
  • food flows

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


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