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Understanding AC Refrigerant Standards

Back in 1987, alarm about emissions of ozone layer-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and bromine gases led national governments worldwide to sign the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a United Nations (UN) environmental agreement in which 197 countries and the European Union (EU) pledged to phase out production and use of CFCs, HCFCs and bromine gases. Though revised, more aggressive reduction targets for new refrigerant standards are being met, subsequent developments – rapid industrialization in large emerging market countries and the growing threats and costs of global warming – have complicated matters further.

Led by the European Union (EU), the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Federated States of Micronesia, an international movement is already underway to ban and find substitutes for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – the group of refrigerant gases now replacing ozone-depleting CFCs and HCFCs – that have lower Global Warming Potential (GWP). This is causing some confusion and consternation, and is being met with some resistance in industry, the marketplace and on the part of rapidly industrializing countries, such as Brazil, China and India, who are in the midst of phasing out CFCs and HCFCs, however.

The success of the Montreal Protocol to date demonstrates that such broad-based multilateral agreements can be effective in addressing urgent environmental issues on a global basis. On the other hand, the process also highlights the challenges, complexity, uncertainties and nuances involved in drafting and enacting effective and long-lasting government policies and regulations intended to enhance socioeconomic and environmental sustainability without sacrificing too much in the way of economic growth and development potential.

New refrigerant standards, ozone depletion and global warming

Though present in miniscule quantities (an average 0.6 parts per million (PPM)), the ozone layer absorbs 97-99 percent of the sun's medium frequency ultraviolet radiation. In the 1970s, scientists raised the alarm about CFC emissions depleting ozone (O3) in the lower stratosphere (some 12-19 miles above the Earth's surface) threatening all forms of life. International policy makers and national leaders acknowledged this assessment and took action by signing the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985, and the subsequent signing and ratification of the Montreal Protocol (in 1987 and 1989, respectively).

The two most widely adopted multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) to date, the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol are administered by the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Ozone Secretariat. The Montreal Protocol establishes targets and schedules for developed and developing countries party to the international treaties to phase out and eventually eliminate production, use, and emissions of eight groups of widely used chlorine and bromine gases responsible for depletion of the ozone layer. This list includes all CFCs and HCFCs.

Under the Montreal Protocol, production, use and emissions of CFCs were phased out worldwide in the mid-1990s. The complete phase-out of a group of halon gases and other CFCs was completed in 2010. The phase-out of HCFCs – R-22 being the most widely used – began in 1996 and is slated to be complete across the EU and all 197 national governments party to the Montreal Protocol by 2030. Under the terms of the MP, developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, have a longer period of time in which to phase out and eliminate production and use.

The good news is that the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050 if the treaty is adhered to. Here in the U.S., “We went through a major transition leading up to 2010 as we phased out of R-22,” Bart Powelson, director of commercial A/C marketing at Emerson Climate Technologies, elaborated in a 3P interview.

Refrigerants are going to be seeing another transition in the next decade. We have already gone to non-ozone depleting refrigerants. Now, we're intent on finding the lowest global warming potential refrigerant.

Refrigerants and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)

The bad news, at least in terms of environmental health and safety, is that rapid industrialization in emerging market countries around the world since 1987 led to an unanticipated spike and rapid rise in the production, use and emissions of HCFCs such as R-22, as well as rapidly growing replacement with HFCs, such as R-404A and R-134a.

“In 1987, when all the developing countries agreed to phase out R-22, they were not as economically developed as they are today,” Rajan Rajendra, director of Engineering Services at Emerson Climate Technologies, explained in an interview.

They agreed to a baseline in 1987, but since that time their use of R-22 has grown by leaps and bounds. That rapid growth wasn't anticipated, and so they are facing a quandary: not only do they have to curtail R-22, but they need to do so a lot more aggressively than initially intended.

Complicating matters further is the rapid rise in production and use of HFCs as replacements. Though benign in terms of ozone depletion, HFCs are greenhouse gases, emissions of which are governed internationally by two other MEAs. – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol (KP).

Much lower in terms of Global Warming Potential (GWP) than CFCs and HCFCs, the rapid rise in HFC production, use and emissions threatens to overwhelm their lower GWPs, the net result being an acceleration in the rate of global warming, according to scientists.

Banning HFCs

Such concerns led first the United Federated States of Micronesia, then the U.S., Canada and Mexico as a group to propose an amendment to the UN Montreal Protocol. The latter, dubbed the North American Proposal, calls for the implementation of a worldwide phase-out and eventual complete ban of HFC production and use.

Predating the North American Proposal, the EU has been forging ahead in its own right. Aiming to meet its obligations under the KP, the European Commission (EC), in 2006, issued a directive to ban the use of R-134a, a fluorocarbon that is used widely in mobile air conditioning systems by the automotive industry. An EU ban on R-134a in mobile air conditioning systems on all new vehicle models went into effect in 2011, and extends to include all cars as of 2017.

Having issued a directive phasing out R-134a, EU regulators quickly turned their attention to supermarket refrigeration, more specifically use of the HFC R-404A, Rajendran recounted.

Pushback against more new refrigerant standards

The EU phase-out of R-134a and the proposed ban on R-404A set automakers and chemical manufacturers active in the heating, cooling, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) industry racing to find refrigerant substitutes with GWPs of 150 or less. It also generated resistance and criticism from the Brazilian, Chinese and Indian governments, as well as industry players.

Already struggling to cope with phasing out an unexpectedly large base of R22 and HCFC plants and production, they are now being required, at least in the EU, to phase out and eliminate use of the HFCs meant to replace them.

The EU ban on R-134a, the proposed ban on R-404A and the North American Proposal pose a serious dilemma for developing, emerging market countries and industry participants alike, opponents and critics of yet more new refrigerant standards say. The pace of new regulations and standards is threatening to outrun the ability of industry to find and implement cost-effective substitutes and governments to ensure compliance.

We are now looking at alternatives – 404A and 134a – and then we see Europe has banned 134a and is now talking about banning 404A,” Rajendran, echoing Chinese, Indian and Brazilian critics, stated. “What's going on? We cannot afford these changes. Our economies are only now growing. Implementing these changes will squash that growth."

The movement to phase out and ban HFCs may have run its course, at least for the moment, however. Though high-level EU meetings were held to consider curtailing or banning the use of R-404A in refrigeration systems, no directive requiring a phase-out or ban has been adopted.

Similarly, the North American Proposal to the Montreal Protocol has been unable to garner sufficient support among the parties to the UN Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol. Word is that the U.S., Canada and Mexico will try to muster support for adoption one more time this year, though indications to date lead industry participants and observers to believe that the outcome will be the same.

As Rajendran elaborated:

The problem is that while a lot of countries, over 100, have signed on in support of the North American Protocol, China and India have vehemently opposed it. They are right now in the process of getting out of R22, and now they are being asked to modify the MP, so from their point of view, they don't see it as beneficial.

European and North American countries tried to push it through, but it hasn't gone anywhere in last four years. They are reportedly going to give it one more push this year, but given what we know today, it doesn't look promising. This is the only new proposal with any legs, but very weak legs.

To be continued in the second half of this post, New Horizons for AC Refrigerant Standards, tomorrow.

You may also be interested in our series, Refrigerant Revolution which goes into greater detail about refrigerants.

[image credit: Chris Hunkeler: Flickr cc]

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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