HFCs Must Be Phased Out

April 1, 2014

There is now scientific and political agreement that 21st century temperature rises must be kept between 1.5O to 2OC in order to avert full-scale climate catastrophe. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.92°F (0.51O C) warmer than the mid-20th century baseline. Recent computer modeling estimates that global temperatures are most likely headed towards a 4O C increase by 2100. Such unfathomably high temperatures will bring on cataclysmic results, including the flooding of some of the most inhabited areas of the world due to massive sea level rises.

Every little bit of warming is pushing the world towards runaway climate tipping points. Tipping points are thresholds of no return. They are self-accelerating turning points, whereby, due to positive feedback, a change in one system triggers a cascade of changes in others. Alarmingly, climate "tipping points" could be reached within a few decades.

We must therefore think both long and short term, and take immediate measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have significant climate benefits over the next several decades.

The question then becomes: What are the most available and effective steps to reduce the flow of greenhouse gas emissions in the short term while we tackle the longer-term overall challenge of weaning the world from dependence on fossil fuels?

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are used as refrigerants in domestic and commercial refrigeration, as well as in domestic, commercial, and mobile air-conditioning. They have several other applications, including as insulation foam-blowing agents and aerosol propellants.

HFCs replaced earlier generations of fluorocarbon refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly known as the DuPont product Freon, which had to be phased-out because of their harmful impact on the ozone layer.

However, HFCs, like their predecessors, are powerful global warming gases. They are "short-term climate forcing substances" with global warming potential (GWP) thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide. And because they have short atmospheric lifetimes, their impact on the climate is most concentrated within a few decades following their release into the atmosphere.

Their atmospheric accumulation is rapidly growing year by year. According to a 2011 United Nations Environment Program report, the "CO2 equivalent emissions of HFCs increased by approximately 8% per year from 2004 to 2008." At the current trajectory, by 2050 their annual emissions are projected to rise to about 3.5 to 8.8 Gt CO2eq., representing between 9% to 18% of total global CO2 emissions. And, depending on the emissions control scenarios of other greenhouse gases, unfettered HFC emissions could in time constitute 45% of total anthropogenic global warming gases in the atmosphere.

The rapid phase-out of HFCs is therefore one of the most cost-effective and immediate preventive measures that can be taken today to try to avoid near-term climate tipping points. Their elimination by 2020 could help buy back some needed time to further tackle the challenges of reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Since the 1990s, the Greenpeace report Cool Technologies: Working Without HFCs has routinely surveyed the availability of HFC-free, low-GWP alternatives. (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publication...)

The extensive 2012 edition documents the wide variety of technologies in the market today that use natural refrigerants and foaming agents. For the most part, these technologies use CO2, hydrocarbons, ammonia, water, and air.

Natural refrigerants and foaming agents, in contrast to fluorocarbons, abundantly occur in the biosphere, maintain a steady state, and are easily absorbed by Nature. They are eco-friendly.

HFC-free technologies exist in nearly the full spectrum of applications, such as: a) domestic refrigeration and air-conditioning, b) commercial refrigeration and air-conditioning, c) mobile air-conditioning, d) industrial processing, and e) insulation foam blowing.

The Greenpeace report lists the names of companies manufacturing and/or using equipment with natural refrigerants, and describes the equipment. The report documents, based on data released by the companies, the efficiency advantage of equipment using natural refrigerants compared to those using HFCs.

The GreenFreeze hydrocarbon domestic refrigerator technology was developed by Greenpeace in 1992, and there are over 700 million GreenFreeze refrigerators in the world today. About 100 million domestic refrigerators and freezers are produced in the world each year, and GreenFreeze technology represents between 35% and 40% of the total. The UNEP Technology and Economic Assessment Panel projects that at least 75% to 80% of global new refrigerator production will use hydrocarbon refrigerants by 2020.

According to an exhaustive study prepared for the European Commission, commercial refrigeration represents 40% of total annual refrigerant emissions, and it is expected to represent 47% by 2015.

There are three main types of commercial and industrial refrigeration equipment: a) stand alone plug-in equipment, b) condensing units, and c) centralized systems.

Cool Technologies: Working Without HFCs documents the market penetration of natural refrigerants in all of these applications. For example, refrigerants comprise a global initiative of multinational corporations that aims to replace the use of HFCs in their point-of-sale cooling applications. Current partners include Coca-Cola, Unilever, McDonald's, PepsiCo, and Red Bull. By 2015, both Coca Cola and Unilever will be 100% free of HFCs in new cooling equipment and freezers. Many other large companies use equipment with natural refrigerants, including Carlsberg, Danone, Heineken, and Nestlé. And in 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a body comprising over 650 companies from 70 countries, pledged to begin phasing-out HFCs as of 2015 and replace them with non-HFC refrigerants.

Hundreds of supermarkets around the world are also using natural refrigerants in a variety of stand-alone equipment and centralized systems. For example, Sobeys, Canada's second largest food retailer with more than 1,300 stores across the country, plans on transitioning all new stores to CO2 refrigeration. Another Canadian company, CSC Group, developed and manufactures a patented CO2 based "Eco2-System" for supermarkets. The company estimates that, if all 6,500 grocery retailers in Canada would use its Eco2-System, the GHG emission reduction would be equivalent to "taking two million cars off the road."

Global passenger-car production in 2010 was approximately 66 million, of which 75%, or 49.5 million, were equipped with air conditioners. In 2010, there were an estimated 600 million cars in the world, with approximately 70% of them equipped with A/C, each with an average charge of 0.6-0.8 kg of refrigerant. The total stock of refrigerant charge from the global fleet of passenger-cars was 70,100 tons in 2006, with an average leakage rate of approximately 17%.

Currently, all new mobile air-conditioning (MAC) units use HFC-134a refrigerant. The release into the atmosphere of 300 grams of HFC-134a, the most commonly used HFC today, is equivalent to the carbon emissions from driving a Volkwagen Golf about 2,500 kilometers, or more than the distance between Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Hydrocarbons offer reliable and more efficient alternatives to HFCs in mobile air-conditioning (MACs). Though at the present time there are no hydrocarbon mobile air-conditioners sold on the world market, HFC MACs are routinely converted during servicing to hydrocarbons in many countries, including China, the United States, Australia, and Canada. Greenpeace estimates that, globally, up to 50 million cars may have been converted, outside of regulatory framework, from CFCs and HFCs to hydrocarbons.

The European Union, under the "EU F-Gas Regulations," is instituting sector by sector restrictions and partial bans on the use of HFCs. These measures will cap the total amount of HFCs which can be placed on the European market, and through systematic reductions will gradually cut the volume of HFCs to 21% of present levels by 2030.

In stark contrast, while the Canadian government understands the potential climate dangers of the large-scale uptake of HFCs globally, especially by developing countries, it is doing precious little to reduce their use domestically.

Canada is a co-sponsor, with the United State and Mexico, of the "North American Amendment Proposal to the Montreal Protocol," which would bring HFCs into the regulatory regime of the Montreal Protocol. If accepted, the amendment would result in the systematic global phase-down of these substances.

However, the North American Amendment Proposal has been stuck in a political stalemate for the past four years. It is a victim of the climate talks quagmire. Though there is growing international support for the amendment, it may take years before it is actually acted upon.

Canada is doing the right thing by co-sponsoring the amendment, but Canada need not wait for such international developments before taking action itself. Like the European Union, Canada could take immediate fiscal and regulatory measures to reduce the use of HFCs and encourage the uptake of HFC-free technologies.

For example, Canada could create technical standards and regulations that would encourage the uptake of Greenfreeze refrigerators in the domestic market. Why is it that, while European, Chinese, Latin American, and Japanese consumers have been able to purchase climate-friendly refrigerators for many years, Canadian consumers are to this day denied the same opportunity?

Similarly, through targeted fiscal measures (such as carbon taxes on refrigerants), and appropriate regulatory policies, Canada could encourage the uptake of HFC-free cooling technologies in supermarkets, office buildings, convention centres, and so forth.

Within the global context, this would be leading by example.

(Janos Maté is a senior consultant with Greenpeace International.)