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.
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.
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.