Introducing the Refrigerant Revolution

This is the first 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.

photo courtesy

By Jill Abelson and Jeff Cohen

With Hurricane Sandy re-igniting climate discussions around the country, the growing impact of refrigerants on climate change continues to receive unprecedented media attention in The New York Times, Bloomberg and other news outlets. According to scientists at NOAA and U.S. EPA, if current trends continue, by 2050 up to a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to refrigerants’ use in cooling technologies. Booming demand for air conditioning and refrigeration around the world, especially in developing countries, is increasing consumption of refrigerants, which under business as usual are being released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Here in the U.S., hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – found in everything from kitchen refrigerators to supermarket cases to air conditioning systems for autos, homes, and buildings – have become the fastest growing climate pollutant in the U.S. Their rate of growth now exceeds that of CO2 emissions. This past summer, the U.S. and other G8 countries committed  to comprehensive action to reduce growth of HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants, including methane and black carbon soot.

Safe and effective management of refrigerants has now become a business, environmental and sustainability priority around the world.

photo courtesy EOS Climate

History of CFCs

The first man-made refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were invented in 1928. Considered miracles of modern science due to their unique heat transfer properties, along with other attributes – inert, colorless, odorless – these gases quickly became part of our everyday life. Low toxicity, low flammability and low reactivity led to their being used in everything from aerosol cans to refrigerants, blowing agents, fire extinguishers and aircraft and industrial fire suppression systems. They were even safe enough to be used as propellants for asthma inhalers.

About 50 years after their invention, the world discovered that CFCs were destroying the Earth’s protective ozone layer. This discovery galvanized the public, scientists, government and business, leading to ratification of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, widely considered the world’s most successful international environmental agreement. The Protocol cut production of CFCs by 98 percent from historic levels, putting the earth’s protective ozone layer on a path to recovery by the end of the 21st century.

A little known fact about the Montreal Protocol is that it also bought the world important “breathing room” in our fight against climate change, because CFCs are also incredibly potent greenhouse gases. The Protocol has prevented the equivalent of 135 billion tons of CO2 emissions since 1990 – nine times greater than initial targets under the Kyoto climate agreement.

Climate Impacts of CFCs, HCFCs & HFCs

image courtesy Julie Gieseke,

While the Montreal Protocol was successful in eliminating production of these chemicals, it does not control emissions. As a result, large quantities of chemicals produced prior to their phase-out deadlines remain in legal use in equipment, products, building infrastructure, and other stockpiles around the world. They pose a continued threat not only to the ozone layer but to the climate system, as well.  Unfortunately, replacements to CFCs – HCFCs and HFCs – are also potent greenhouse gases, and are now the mainstay of booming demand for air conditioning and refrigeration in developing countries.

Produce, Use, Emit

Assumed safe at the time of their invention, there was no concern that refrigerants would be eventually released into the atmosphere; thus a linear production cycle evolved. Many countries, including the U.S., have imposed controls on refrigerant emissions. Refrigerants are so ubiquitous and disaggregated that their regulation is difficult to enforce – much like policing speeding cars on the freeway.  According to U.S. EPA data, less than 10 percent of refrigerant is actually recovered and properly recycled. Even when refrigerants are properly recovered and recycled, they are used to “recharge” other equipment that has lost its refrigerant charge from leakage over time. Eventually, and inevitably, the vast majority of refrigerants produced escape into the atmosphere.

image courtesy Julie Gieseke,

Driving this change are several, interrelated factors:

  • Cost – Accelerated phase out schedules are forcing up prices for the most prevalent refrigerants (e.g., R-22).
  • Operational Risk – Refrigerant value and scarcity will increase demand for full life-cycle management, as well as responsible reclamation.
  • Regulations – Federal, state and local authorities are now increasing requirements for monitoring of refrigerants, refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.
  • Environmental Impact – Growing concern about climate impact is putting pressure on organizations to track and minimize emissions during equipment operations and at end-of-life.
  • Sustainability – As a strategic imperative, companies are actively seeking refrigerant management solutions to round out their sustainability portfolios.

With the Montreal Protocol celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall, the world now faces a new and important challenge — for both climate protection and business innovation – in the evolution of cool.

Next week, we’ll look at Refrigerant Policy Backdrop.


10 responses

  1. Really glad to see this being covered. Do you know approximately how much GHG remains in old fridges out there? ie, is it a bigger problem than, say, methane that’s sitting in the permafrost in Alaska?

    1. A single refrigerator manufactured pre-1996 will typically have enough
      CFC refrigerant and CFC-based insulation foam, that if released to the
      atmosphere, would be the equivalent of 5 metric tons of CO2! Hard to
      believe but the global warming potential for these CFCs are in the
      thousands so even a small quantity has a large atmospheric impact. For
      perspective, 5 metric tons of CO2 is equivalent to the greenhouse gas
      emissions from a car, on average, driven over the course of an entire
      year. We don’t have a solid comparison to the methane sitting in Alaksan
      permafrost, but the CFC, HCFC, and HFC refrigerants contained in
      household refrigerators, residential and automotive air conditioners,
      building chillers, supermarket systems, etc. in the U.S. alone would be
      in the range of billions of tons of CO2-equivalent. Of course, not all
      of these gases will be released to the atmosphere at once, nor do they
      have to with proper life-cycle management. That is the goal. Even
      chemicals with high global warming potential, if they never reach the atmosphere (leak-free equipment, proper servicing, end-of-life management) are totally cool.

  2. Good subject. What’s the current process for recovering this stuff? ie, I know you can take your fridge down to the local WalMart or whatever and they’ll take care of it for you, but how many people really do that? Is a policy in place to make sure that when you buy a new fridge someone makes sure the old one is dealt with?

    1. Many appliance retailers offer free pick up of your old fridge when you
      purchase a new one. Also, a number of utilities have appliance take back
      programs as part of energy efficiency initiatives. Utility programs
      actually offer cash for the old “clunkers” but only if they are
      operational. Most of these programs do guarantee that the fridges are
      recycled properly, which includes the recovery of the refrigerant. Under
      the U.S. Clean Air Act, refrigerant must be recovered from appliances
      at their end-of-life by a certified technician. As you can imagine,
      given the millions of appliances that are discarded every year around
      the country, it is difficult to measure and police this requirement. EPA
      estimates that only 10% of discarded fridges in the U.S. are managed
      responsibly at the end-of-life. You can call your local utility, check
      with the appliance retailer, or you can check to see if an appliance
      recycler is in your area that can pick up your fridge and guarantee
      responsible management. The largest in the U.S. is JACO Environmental
      who has over 30 collection facilities and a nationwide logistics

    1. Yes absolutely. California’s AB 32 program provides for the first time a
      financial incentive for owners of older refrigeration and A/C equipment
      that contain CFCs to transition sooner rather than later to more
      advanced, energy efficient climate-friendly technologies.

    1. Appliances, older equipment and used cars — to list a few examples — are de-manufactured, with useful parts and scrap metal headed to recycling. Refrigerants require careful handling when equipment is de-commissioned or de-manufactured. As the post suggests, for a variety of reasons business are increasingly encouraged to manage refrigerants responsibly, whether equipment is still in use, or headed toward reincarnation. Leading, sustainable companies are headed in this direction.

  3. Can you please provide a citation for this statement: “According to scientists at NOAA and U.S. EPA, if current trends continue, by 2050 up to a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to refrigerants’ use in cooling technologies.” (The hyperlinks only take you to the home pages of the agencies.)

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