HFCs: A growing threat to the climate. The worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of.
Hydrofluorocarbons, or “super greenhouse gases,” are gases used for refrigeration and air conditioning, and known as super greenhouse gases because the combined effect of their soaring use and high global warming potential could undercut the benefits expected from the reduction of other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Used as refrigerants, they were introduced by the chemical industry to replace ozone destroying CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which have (almost) been phased out by the Montreal Protocol. (pdf)
HFCs are 3,830 times more potent than CO2 with a lifetime of 14 years.
- HFCs background
- What is the Montreal Protocol
- Replacing HFCs
- The science of HFCs
- International action
Back in the late 1970’s scientists realised that we were punching a hole in the ozone layer with our liberal use of a man made chemical called CFCs in our fridges and air conditioners. Humans heeded this warning, got together in Montreal in 1987, and agreed to stop using CFCs. The Montreal Protocol remains one of the finest examples of international collaboration to protect the environment. To replace the ozone eating CFCs, we created replacements, HCFCs which are in turn being replaced by HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons. However, what we didn’t realise at the time was that although HFCs don’t put a hole in the ozone layer they instead are cooking us alive. Their potency as a greenhouse gas is up to 23,000 times that of carbon dioxide and their use is increasing at 10-15% per year. link
HFC emissions rose more than 45% in the decade following 2005 – link
August 2017: Federal court strikes down Obama HFCs rule. The court ruled that the EPA cannot ban hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under a Clean Air Act provision meant to protect the ozone layer, since that section is meant only to stop ozone-depleting substances. link
What is the Montreal Protocol?
The Montreal Protocol is a landmark international agreement designed to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. The treaty was originally signed in 1987 and substantially amended in 1990 and 1992. It stipulates that the production and consumption of compounds that deplete ozone in the stratosphere – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform – are to be phased out by 2000. more Nearly 97% of ozone-depleting chemicals have now been phased out as of 2010. The net effect has been the elimination of the equivalent of more than 200 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, five years’ worth of total global emissions, far more than has been accomplished by the Kyoto process. link. [The Montreal Protocol is widely viewed as one of the most successful environmental treaties because it essentially eliminated the use of CFCs, blamed for damaging the ozone layer over Antarctica. Unlike the Kyoto Treaty, it has been signed by all countries.] Although HFCs do not deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, they have high-global warming potential (GWP) and therefore pose a significant threat to the climate system.
July 2013: Curbing HFCs Is key to climate-change strategy. In terms of sheer quantity, carbon dioxide is society’s largest contribution to global warming, but there are some lesser-known gases that also jeopardize the Earth’s climate future. This list includes methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and several others. These gases may make up a small percentage of the emissions society generates, but they pack a devastating punch when released. The threat level for each of these gases varies based on several factors, most notably their lifetime in the atmosphere and their potential to influence global warming. Reducing the emissions of those gases in addition to those from carbon dioxide is critical to achieving a stable climate. link
Climate-friendly alternatives to HFCs and HCFCs. To avoid use and emissions of both hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a variety of climate-friendly, energy efficient, safe and proven alternatives are available today. In fact, for most applications where HFCs and HCFCs are still used in the world, more climate friendly alternatives could potentially be used. However, due to different thermodynamic and safety properties of the alternatives, there is no “one size fits all” solution. The suitability of a certain alternative must be considered separately for each category of product and equipment and in some cases also taking into account the level of ambient temperature at the location where the product and equipment is being used. link
February 2017: Quest for climate-friendly refrigerants. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have just completed a multiyear study to identify the “best” candidates for future use as air conditioning refrigerants that will have the lowest impact on the climate. Unfortunately, all 27 fluids NIST identified as the best from a performance viewpoint are at least slightly flammable, which is not allowed under U.S. safety codes for most end uses. In other words, the NIST study found no ideal refrigerant that combined low “global warming potential” with other desirable performance and safety features such as being both nonflammable and nontoxic. link
October 2016: EPA advances climate goals by expanding refrigerant regulations. The Final Rule is scheduled to become effective January 1, 2017 and, for the first time, expands the requirements of Clean Air Act Section 608 to non-ozone depleting “substitutes” such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The Final Rule is expected to result in significant costs for many sectors of the economy because of the expansion of requirements to non-ozone depleting substitutes as well as EPA’s changes to the leak detection and repair provisions. link
July 2015: EPA bans a gas that once helped save the Ozone Layer. The gases that helped solve the ozone hole crisis in the 1980s are also some of the worst offenders when it comes to climate change. Now, they’re on their way to being banned in the United States. The EPA has finalized a regulation limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, for a variety of industrial purposes. As a greenhouse gas, HFCs are up to 12,000 times more potent as carbon dioxide as an agent causing climate change. link
September 2016: Push to phase out disastrous greenhouse gas. A loose coalition of more than 100 countries, including the US and European nations, is pushing for an early phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a powerful greenhouse gas that if left unchecked is set to add a potentially disastrous 0.5C to global temperatures by the end of the century. HFCs are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioning systems. link
July 2015: EPA restricts climate-warming chemicals. The Obama administration moved to restrict the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the most potent greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. The Environmental Protection Agency declared that certain uses for HFCs are prohibited and certain alternatives can be used. The move is part of President Obama’s second-term push to slow climate change, in part through regulations limiting greenhouse gases. The EPA said the private sector is already moving away from HFCs. Without the right regulations, the EPA estimated that HFC use would double by 2020 and triple by 2030. link
March 2011: The EPA announced approval of the refrigerant HFO-1234yf. HFO-1234yf has a global warming potential that is 99.7% less than the current chemical (HFC-134a) used in most car air conditioners. Over the next few years, HFO-1234yf will become the new standard for U.S. automakers; the refrigerant has also been approved for use in Europe and Japan. The change will be better for the environment, the EPA said. link
December 2010: Over 400 companies plan to phase out HFC refrigerants after 2015 – link
May 2010: Update on replacement for HFC-134a. Honeywell and DuPont have formed a joint manufacturing venture to produce a new refrigerant for use in automotive air conditioning systems. The new refrigerant has 99.7% lower global warming potential (GWP) than the current refrigerant, HFC-134a. link
The science of HFCs
Because they do not affect the ozone layer, HFCs broadly replaced CFCs as coolants in everything from refrigerators, air conditioners and fire extinguishers to aerosol sprays, medical devices and semiconductors. Production of the refrigerant used in car air-conditioners, a chlorofluorocarbon known as R-12 (commonly known as Freon) was banned at the end of 1995 and replaced by R134a. In the EU, HFC-134a (also called R-134a) will be banned as from 2011 in all new cars, with a new fluorochemical HFO-1234yfrefrigerant taking its place.
Some science experts now suggest CO2 as a better choice refrigerant. According to Ray K. Will, a senior consultant at SRI Consulting, HFC-134a used in home, auto, and retail refrigeration applications made up 16% of 2007 global fluorocarbon consumption of 1.2 million metric tons. The trouble with HFC-134a is that it has a GWP (global warming potential) 1,400 times greater than that of CO2, the standard against which other global-warming substances are measured. To meet its obligations to reduce global-warming gases under the Kyoto protocol, the EU ordered new carmakers to use refrigerants with a GWP of less than 150 starting in 2011. With a GWP of 4, HFO-1234yf meets the EU’s standard. Although no other government entity yet requires a low-GWP refrigerant in cars, automakers that sell in many countries will want to reduce engineering, supply, and maintenance costs by using one air-conditioning system globally. Cooling systems that use HFO-1234yf, fluorochemical makers say, are more energy efficient than those that use CO2 and can be easily dropped into existing air-conditioning systems with a little tweaking. CO2, by contrast, will require an entirely new compressor system that works at higher pressures than fluorochemical systems. Most people think of CO2 as a gas that pours out of power plant smoke stacks. However, the Alliance for CO2 Solutions hails CO2 as a white knight poised to both keep car interiors cool and help save the environment.
March 2015: Sugar – a natural refrigerant that could help reduce global warming. Could the sugar you have in your morning coffee help prevent global warming? UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is putting the question to the test at a store in Somerset, where it is using a refrigerant derived from waste sugar beet in its fridges and freezers. Not only does the CO2-based refrigerant, called eCO2, have a global warming potential of one, 3,922 times less than R404A, the refrigerant most commonly used by supermarkets, it is also derived from a more sustainable source than other CO2-based refrigerants, which are often derived from hydrocarbons or ammonia. link
November 2011: HFC increasing use poses greenhouse gas problem in the future. A rise in the use of “ozone-friendly” HFCs has prompted experts to voice concerns that the potent greenhouse gases could be a problem in the future. A UN report says that HFCs, many times more potent than CO2, could account for up to 20% of emissions and hamper efforts to curb climate change. They are widely used in fridges and air conditioning, replacing CFCs and HCFCs that damage the Earth’s ozone layer. HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbons) are a popular choice by refrigeration manufacturers of because they are deemed to be a “like-for-like” replacement substance for Chlorofluorocarbons and HCFCs which are banned or being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. However, the replacement substances – HFCs – act as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So while they do not harm the Ozone Layer, experts have warned that their growing popularity could lead to an accumulation that could hamper efforts to limit human-induced global warming. link
July 2018: Illegal fluorocarbon (CFC-11) tracked down in China. A mysterious surge in emissions of an illegal ozone-destroying chemical has been tracked down to plastic foam manufacturers in China. The chemical, trichlorofluoromethane or CFC-11, has been banned around the world since 2010 and is a potent destroyer of ozone and strong greenhouse gas. CFC-11 is easy to produce and $150 a tonne cheaper than the ozone-friendly alternative, according to the companies to which the EIA investigators spoke. The EIA report acknowledges significant uncertainties in its calculation but believes it has been conservative in estimating 10,000-12,000 tonnes a year of CFC-11 leaking into the atmosphere. since 2012. link
May 2018: Scientists searching for mystery source of banned refrigerant. Government scientists have detected an increase in emissions of an outlawed industrial gas, CF-11, that destroys ozone, potentially slowing progress in restoring the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer. The scientists say that the increase is likely a result of new, unreported production of the gas probably in East Asia. Global production of CFC-11, which has been used as a refrigerant and in insulating foams, has been banned since 2010 under the Montreal Protocol. link
November 2017: $540 million to support Kigali Amendment. The Trump administration is set to ratify the Kigali Amendment to phase down potent warming HFC gases, while helping fund poor countries to make the switch. Notably, the US is set to contribute $37m, despite the Trump administration’s hostility to multilateral environmental agreements. The Kigali Amendment will enter into force in January 2019, after Sweden became the twentieth country to ratify it. link
October 2016: Is the Kigali deal to cut HFCs monumental? Delegates meeting in Rwanda accepted a complex amendment to the Montreal Protocol. US Secretary of State Kerry, who helped forge the deal in a series of meetings, said it was a major victory for the Earth. But some critics say the compromise may have less impact than expected. Richer economies (the US, EU and others) will start to limit their use of HFCs (the fastest growing greenhouse gas) within a few years and make a cut of at least 10% from 2019. Some developing countries, specifically India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states will not freeze their use until 2028. China, the world’s largest producer of HFCs, will not actually start to cut their production or use until 2029. link
July 2016: Vienna climate meeting aims for progress on deal to cut HFC use. Diplomats meeting in Vienna plan a major step toward a deal under the Montreal Protocol to decrease the use of a potent greenhouse gas, in what could be the most significant measure to combat global warming since last year’s Paris climate agreement. link
June 2016: India-US talks could avoid 0.5C temperature rise. Halocarbons, such as CFCs and HFCs trap heat when leaked into the atmosphere and are responsible for about 8% of the global warming impact. These coolants are harmless to the ozone layer but up to 10,000 times as effective as CO2 for trapping heat. As developing countries such as China and India are set to install some 700 million air conditioners in the next decade, HFC concentrations are set to rise 140%.Revamping the Montreal Protocol could be potentially a big step. link
June 2013: US and China agree to phase down use of HFCs. The United States and China intend to work together and with other countries to “phase down” the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). A global phase-out would be the equivalent of cutting 90 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050, an amount nearly equal to two years’ worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions. link
April 2019: Europe’s Mobile Air Conditioning (MAC) Directive. The European commission recently ruled that the MAC Directive will take effect in two years’ time rather than 2017 as the industry has been lobbying for. Car-makers have been pressing EU governments to allow them to continue using existing types of air conditioning on new models of existing cars as they struggle to invest in “green” technologies and develop more fuel-efficient models such as hybrids and electric vehicles. But the commission insists that the refrigerant used in current air conditioning systems in most European cars has a global warming potential (GWP) far higher than the 150 laid down by the MAC law. Some estimates put the GWP of the existing refrigerant (hydrofluorocarbon R-134a) at 1,400 times higher than CO2. link
In China – April 2013: This week China budged on HFCs. Depending on one’s perspective, it wasn’t much of a concession. China agreed, in essence, to do what it and everybody else had already agreed to do back in 2007: accelerate the phase out of a common class of ozone-eating refrigerants that double as powerful greenhouse gases. But rather than haggling over prices each step of the way, China made it simple and cut a single deal worth up to $385 million to eliminate hydrochlorofluorocarbons between now and 2030. link