Is it true that fluorocarbons are one of the primary causes of global warming?

It’s true. Drawdown, an international group of researchers that recently evaluated potential solutions to reduce global warming, found that reducing emissions of fluorocarbons used in refrigeration and air conditioning is one of the most important things that can be done, along with building wind farms and installing solar power, to limit future warming.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses have historically focused on carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to global warming, but other greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide and fluorocarbons, are also significant contributors to climate change.

Many fluorocarbons are climate “super-pollutants”—on a pound-for-pound basis, fluorocarbons are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. This means that even small volumes of emissions, like those that escape from millions of individual air conditioners when the units are disposed of at the end of their useful lives, can have a major climate impact.

Some fluorocarbons are also “short-lived climate pollutants,” meaning that they remain in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time, from several years to several decades. Carbon dioxide, by comparison, can remain in the atmosphere for centuries. The short atmospheric life of some greenhouse gasses creates an opportunity for those looking to combat climate change. Reining in emissions of fluorocarbons and other short-lived-climate-pollutants can reduce the rate of climate change in the near-term, as countries try to tackle carbon dioxide emissions.

So why do fluorocarbons not get more press attention? Part of the answer is that a little known international treaty, the Montreal Protocol, has been very successful at phasing out the worst fluorocarbons, chemicals that were not only bad for the climate but also created the so-called “ozone hole.”

Hydrofluorcarbons, HFCs, the most widely used fluorocarbons in production today, do not deplete atmospheric ozone but are potent greenhouse gasses. The use of HFCs is still quite small, but could skyrocket in the coming decades because air conditioning in developing—and rapidly warming—countries is expected to grow exponentially.  

“Only about 1 percent of current heating of the atmosphere is caused by HFCs, but production of them is expected to increase very dramatically over the next 30 years unless action is taken to reduce them,” Dan McDougall, a Senior Fellow with the United Nations Climate and Clean Air Coalition said. 

—Phil McKenna

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