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Refrigerants: The Leading Cause of Climate Change?

May 07, 2019 2 min read

Refrigerants: The Leading Cause of Climate Change?

Summer’s coming soon and if you’re like two thirds of Americans, your go to strategy for cooling down is air conditioning. What if I told you everything you know about air conditioning is wrong? As your central AC drops the temperature inside, it simultaneously heats up our atmosphere more than any other single source.    

The Drawdown Project, which measures and ranks our most unfriendly habits for the climate, ranks refrigerants that use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as the number one worst technology in use in terms of its overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Our AC units require energy to keep them running, which is their most obvious source of carbon emissions. However, even though HFCs aren’t directly emitted into the atmosphere, they tend to leak from AC units and compared to carbon, HFCs have a massive climate footprint. They can warm the atmosphere 1,000 to 9,000 times more than carbon.

Why are we using HFCs, anyway?

The answer relates to another major environmental threat that we managed to solve. In the past, many air conditioning units relied on ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to perform their temperature dropping magic. After the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which made AC unit manufacturers switch from CFCs, HFCs became a popular alternative.

Because scientists now realize how harmful HFCs are to our environment, the Montreal Protocol got a recent makeover. It now calls for developed countries to phase out HFCs by 2019 and the rest of the world should gradually swap their AC units by 2028.

What can be done to replace HFCs?

The technology is already out there. Hundreds of alternative refrigeration methods without HFCs already exist. Natural refrigerants such as propane and ammonium could replace HFCs.

From a technical standpoint, these changes require time, though. In the US, lawmakers overturned a federal law that restricted the use of HFCs, which causes an even greater delay on action. Now, individual states have stepped up to develop their own laws with California in the lead. Many drafts of laws focus on commercial scale refrigeration units like the ones used in supermarkets. California has devised a plan to give incentives to organizations using large refrigeration systems to swap out the unit using HFCs for one without them.

From a broader perspective, the need for air conditioning and cooling systems will only get worse as the climatic temperatures rise. Ensuring these systems are carbon friendly would eliminate the self defeating purpose of climate-heating-home-cooling technologies (and a whole lot of cognitive dissonance).