Earlier this week, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that refrigerant chemicals known as “F-gases” pose a greater threat to global climate change than was previously thought. The paper, which was authored by a team of scientists from NOAA, EPA, Dupont and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, estimates that the growth of F-gas emissions due to increased cooling needs represents a grave enough threat that it may undo nearly half of the efforts to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions as a means to combat global climate change.
Found in everyday products such as refrigerators, insulation foams and air conditioning units (including units in homes, building and cars), fluorocarbons were designed by chemical engineers to trap heat in modern cooling appliances. In this light, hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) are the quintessential greenhouse gases. The intention behind the design of HFCs was to combat the impact of cooling chemicals such as Freon on the depletion of the ozone layer, and they were developed before the impact of human-induced climate change was widely understood.
The environmental impact of F-gases
F-gases are roughly 20,000 times more potent in contributing to global warming than carbon dioxide, and the IPCC has determined that the accumulation of these gases in our atmosphere was responsible for roughly 17% of human-caused global warming in 2005. The NAS study stipulates that the usage of HFCs is on the rise with increased consumption in developing nations. Specifically, the NAS study projects that these chemicals could be heating the atmosphere with an impact equivalent to that of seven or eight billon tons of carbon dioxide.
The market opportunities
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that the recent findings open new opportunities for businesses to emerge with innovative product alternatives and new service offerings such as retrofitting of existing equipment, appropriate disposal services and consultation for finding alternative product options.
One such example is an HFC-free refrigerant technology known as Greenfreeze, which was developed by Greenpeace in 1992. Companies such as Whirlpool, Samsung and Electrolux now have roughly 300 million HFC-free refrigeration units being used worldwide. This number of units is estimated to have removed 43,000 pounds of fluorocarbons from our atmosphere, which is equivalent to the pollution contribution of 10 million automobiles. However, due to concerns over the flammability of Greenfreeze’s hydrocarbon system, the EPA has not certified the technology for use in the United States.
Nonetheless, the U.S. market for this type of technology is quickly emerging. Last year, Greenpeace came to an agreement with the EPA that allowed them to test 2,000 Greenfreeze freezers in Ben & Jerry’s retail stores in Boston, Washington D.C. and Vermont. In October of 2008, General Electric petitioned the EPA for approval to sell its new Monogram line of refrigerators, which use isobutane as the refrigerant and hopes to launch the new line to the United States in 2010. Allowing for product alternatives to enter the market directly combats the impact that increased emissions of HFCs may have on global climate change.
Support for substituting harmful fluorinated gases reaches much farther than just Ben & Jerry’s, Greenpeace and GE. Refrigerants Naturally is a corporate initiative to reduce the use of F-gasses such as CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs. Its sponsors include IKEA, McDonalds’s, Coca-Cola and the United Nations Environmental Programme. The European Union also currently has plans to phase out HFCs in new automotive air conditioning systems in the coming years. All these signs indicate that there is strong international support to curtail the impact the f-gases will ultimately have on heating the Earth’s atmosphere.
As Todd English of EOS Climate notes, “For any change to really happen for f-gases, they must be included in any effective national, regional, or international climate legislation. The market is what will provide the incentives for companies to transition to cleaner technologies”. These comments lead us to a final portion of the issue, which is the opportunity for legislative regulation of f-gases.
The opportunities for policy development
In addition to federal approval for product alternatives, it is also critical that we adopt policies to regulate the emissions of these harmful chemicals. Existing treaties such as the Montreal Protocol represent opportunities for national governments to limit the emissions of what is a significant and now a documented threat to the health of our planet. Whether or not regulation of HFCs will make it into the American Clean Energy and Security Act and the upcoming climate negotiations in Copenhagen remains to be seen.