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Refrigerant Revolution: The Policy Backdrop

EOSClimate
EOSClimate | Wednesday November 21st, 2012 | 7 Comments

With the issue currently on the front page of the NY Times the role of refrigerants in climate change is now a mainstream conversation. This is the second in a multi-part article series on refrigerants, their effects as greenhouse gases, and the market-based solutions aimed at their full life-cycle management.  Join us in The Refrigerant Revolution.

On the Mend: Antarctic Ozone Hole as of September 2012 – image courtesy NASA

By Jill Abelson and Jeff Cohen

Last week, we introduced the series by describing how some refrigerants, when released to the atmosphere from leaky equipment, or from equipment improperly discarded, are threatening the Earth’s climate system. In this week’s installment, we cover how governments and businesses around the world have approached the problem through regulatory and other policy measures, and what is on the horizon.

Early Action to Protect the Ozone Layer

In 1974, scientists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina,  then at the University of California at Irvine and who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry,  discovered a link between destruction of ozone in the stratosphere and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), then widely used in various products and applications. The stratospheric ozone layer absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation; excessive UV increases risk of skin cancer and cataracts in humans, and a wide range of adverse impacts on plant and animal life. Driven by environmental groups and consumer demand, the use of CFCs in aerosol cans (e.g., deodorants and hairsprays) was banned in the U.S. in 1978; more comprehensive and global action was triggered in 1985, when an international team of scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

With strong leadership by the U.S. EPA, State Department and President Ronald Reagan, two years later the Montreal Protocol was ratified in 1987. The Protocol  and its later amendments set timetables for both industrialized and developing countries to phase out production of CFCs, HCFCs, and other ozone depleting substances (ODS). Worldwide compliance has put the Earth’s ozone layer on a path to fully recover by the end of the 21st century. Because ODS are also such powerful greenhouse gases, the response to the early warnings by Rowland and Molina, along with the Montreal Protocol, averted by 2010 roughly the same climate impact as all sources of CO2, including transportation, power plants and manufacturing. (Velders et al., 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The Importance of the Montreal Protocol in Protecting the Climate).

U.S. Encourages Refrigerant Recycling

To meet its own obligations under the Protocol, the U.S. under President George H.W. Bush – beginning with 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act —  established a comprehensive program to regulate CFC and HCFC refrigerants including import limits (a strong “black market” for CFCs sprung up in the mid-1990s), technician certification, leak repair requirements, and recovery and reclamation of used refrigerant. The rules encouraged recycling of refrigerants to recharge older equipment, from which grew a large reclamation industry around the country. With tens of thousands of technicians servicing hundreds of thousands of refrigeration and A/C units annually, the challenge has been providing sufficient incentives to properly handle, recover, transport and when needed, dispose of refrigerants.

EPA is providing a good portion of the incentive through a gradual phase-down of the most popular refrigerant, HCFC-22. “R-22” has been widely used for window and central A/C, building chillers, and supermarket cases. To meet U.S. obligations under the Montreal Protocol, EPA ended production of R-22 in 2010 for manufacture of new equipment, while production and import to service older equipment will end by 2020. In between, EPA is cutting annual allocations for the millions of pounds of R-22 production/import, which this year triggered an almost 3-fold price increase, and is expected/hoped to significantly increase the rates of recovery and recycling.

Other industrialized countries have taken a more command-control approach for ODS refrigerants. Most EU countries and Canada simply prohibit re-use of CFC and HCFC refrigerants, effectively mandating destruction of these chemicals when equipment is retired. This approach appears to have created a faster transition to non-ODS alternatives, including HFCs. Whether CFCs and HCFCs are in fact all being destroyed in these countries versus simply being vented, is difficult to monitor.  By contrast, there is no such mandate in the U.S., where carbon markets have incentivized verified recovery and destruction of CFC refrigerants.

Global Spotlight Shifts to Climate

HFCs were developed as ozone-friendly replacements for use in asthma inhalers, fire suppression, aerosols, solvents, foam insulation, and refrigeration and A/C. Like CFCs and HCFCs, HFCs have relatively high global warming potential when released to the atmosphere. Last week, the 195 country signatories to the Montreal Protocol wrapped up their 25th anniversary celebrations, debating for the 4th year running whether to amend the Protocol to establish a global phaseout of HFCs. This is a U.S. proposal, now with support from over 80 nations, similar to the successful approach on ODS. Again, there was a lack of consensus, again with pushback from China, India and Brazil.

Cold Storage – photo courtesy www.sxc.hu

While debate on HFC production continues, individual countries — and now prominent businesses — are taking proactive policy positions to promote “next generation” refrigeration technologies:

  • The nations of the G8 coalition, along with 10 other countries, have pledged action on HFCs along with black carbon and methane, so-called short-lived climate pollutants.
  • The European Union will soon end use of HFCs for new cars and trucks; the industry is looking at both CO2 and a new refrigerant, HFO-1234yf, that has extremely low GWP.
  • Australia has proposed a significant tax on HFCs as part of their climate change law.
  • U.S. EPA’s SNAP program has approved several low and zero-GWP refrigerants for use in automotive A/C, household refrigerators, vending machines and grocery cases; other important voluntary initiatives — GreenChill and RAD — are promoting best practices and low GWP technologies in supermarkets, and proper end-of-life disposal of household appliances.
  • Under AB 32, California has established aggressive regulations for leak monitoring and repair of stationary refrigeration and A/C equipment that use ODS and HFC refrigerants.
  • Over 400 companies comprising the Consumer Goods Forum, with combined revenue over $3 trillion and 10 million employees, have committed to begin phasing out HFC refrigerants for new appliances and large refrigeration installations.
  • Coca-Cola, Unilever/Ben&Jerry, and PepsiCo are transitioning out of HFC-based equipment to hydrocarbons and CO2 refrigerants.

It is important to emphasize that refrigerants – CFCs, HCFCs, or HFCs – only pose an environmental threat if they are released to the atmosphere. New A/C technologies and newly installed systems can be virtually leak-free and highly energy efficient. But equipment must be properly maintained, and the millions of pounds of refrigerant that are installed in equipment around the world will need to be properly managed through their life-cycle.

This is the focus of the Refrigerant Revolution. Stay tuned for our future installments.


▼▼▼      7 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • jenboynton

    Very informative article!

    I’m asthmatic and recently experienced the switch to the HFC inhalers (from the old ones that were worse for the ozone). They clog up more easily then the old ones, but that seems like a small price to pay for the environmental benefit.

    More annoyingly – the switch means that my old, $6 generic inhaler was replaced by a patented one that retails for $66, so the big pharma companies are profiting off of this environmental regulation. Luckily enough I’m in a position to afford the cost increase, but since asthma is disproportionately prevalent in poorer communities with low air quality, it seems like poor people always lose.

    I know your company deals primarily with refrigerant applications . Do they have a negative impact on local air quality or are they only problematic from a global warming perspective? When the HFCs are phased out, what will replace them?

    • jill abelson

      Hi Jen,
      On your first point, the manufacturers of CFC-free inhalers do have assistance programs for patients with increased out-of-pocket costs, to help them make the transition to the new HFA (HFC) medications. Info is available
      from doctors, pharmacies, the manufacturers’ websites, on the Partnership for
      Prescription Assistance website, and on the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of
      America “Transition Now” website.

      None of the fluorochemicals have any significant environmental
      impact when they are emitted to the atmosphere, other than global warming
      potential (or ozone depletion potential for CFCs and HCFCs). No mandated phase out of HFCs is on the horizon in the U.S. EPA has listed a number of acceptable alternatives with zero or very low GWPs for use in specific applications, including CO2,
      hydrocarbons, ammonia, and a hydrofluoro-olefin (HFO-1234yf).

      Thanks for posting your comments!!

  • Alice Almers

    Good article. The last point “CFCs, HCFCs, or HFCs – only pose an environmental threat if they are released to the atmosphere” … is pretty key. Though I do wonder – to what extent can policy ensure that new uses for these devices are truly air-tight? or kept track of? It seems like this become something of a perpetual problem if we keep using this stuff, even if it is contained!

  • North Central Fla Guy

    Here in Florida, I’m constantly amazed at how outrageously inefficient Air COnditioning is. There is absolutely no regulation on putting in proper insulation into homes. If there were you could easily cut 50% or more of electricity use, and therefore CO2 and these other refrigerant gasses without even needing to worry about anything else. Bad, lazy politics!

  • Luke

    Between Triple Pundit and the NY Times series, it’s great that attention is being paid to refrigerants and fluorochemicals. Since the world is not going to stop wanting cold food and air conditioning, and totally “green” replacements are not yet proven for every use (i.e., simply banning HCFCs and HFCs won’t work), and that the regulations are impossible to enforce, looks like market incentives and innovations are needed for responsible operations and management of the existing infrastructure and inventories. Looking forward to remaining series.

    • jill abelson

      thanks Luke! More to come!

  • Akron Steve

    Maybe this is a solution before its time, but what about absorption chillers? Even Einstein was all over them – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein_refrigerator

    My understanding is they only need Amonia… not quite a “safe” substance, but better than HFCs, no?