The EPA is taking its first big step to try and phase out the use of a major class of greenhouse gases, proposing a rule allowing alternatives to replace certain hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in home refrigerators and other appliances. The rule has been a long time coming, as hundreds of millions of refrigerators in other parts of the world already use much more benign coolants. The U.S. has been slow to follow.
"Anything that stands to replace fluorinated gases, or at least the ones with high global warming potential, is a great thing," said Samuel LaBudde, a director at the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency. "Most people are unaware that fluorinated gases currently represent one-sixth of the contribution to global warming. We need to get rid of them."
HFCs including hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 and HFC-134a are much more potent warming gases than CO2. One pound of some of these high Global Warming Potential (GWP) gases are equivalent to more than 1,400 pounds of CO2. That’s why they’re known as "super greenhouse gases."
The new proposed EPA rule, submitted under the Significant New Alternatives Program, would replace several of those gases with common hydrocarbons including isobutane, propane and also a proprietary blend known as HCR-188C. Instead of global warming potential in the thousands, these gases have GWPs in the single digits.
"It’s just like propane in your gas grill, you burn it and it turns into carbon dioxide and water,” said Kert Davies, a research director at Greenpeace. “It is nowhere near the impact of hydrofluorocarbons."
The rule applies to household refrigerators and freezers as well as commercial point-of-sale appliances like ice cream coolers. Although refrigerators have only a small amount of the gases, if vented improperly or if they leak out, they are just as damaging as hundreds or thousands of pounds of emitted CO2. In much of the rest of the world, HFCs have already been replaced in these devices.
"You have a hard time in Europe buying a refrigerator with fluorinated gases in it," Davies said. "Here you can’t buy one without them. It’s one of those things where the US is sort of the low bar, and we might be catching up. And it doesn’t have to stop with household refrigerators."
Only a first step
Although it is a significant step, other sectors make up the bulk of the problem when it comes to HFCs. Air conditioning in cars as well as home and commercial building cooling systems both in the United States and elsewhere account for much of the problem.
"The biggest sector is mobile air conditioning," said LaBudde. "That’s nearly 40 percent of the HFC footprint. The fact is, there are already alternatives available, and within three or four years every automobile in the US could be running on chemicals or refrigerants with a GWP of four rather than 1400."
Even if that were to happen, it might not make a dent into the silent villain behind the global warming. Last year, a study showed that unless drastic measures are taken in the developing world the use of HFCs is going to skyrocket. By 2050, HFC emissions could be responsible for 45 percent as much of global warming as CO2.
Some countries, the US included, are beginning a process to try and roll back emissions of HFCs using the Montreal Protocol; the treaty was initially used to phase out the use of the chlorofluorocarbons that caused the holes in the ozone layer. According to LaBudde, an investment on the part of developed nations of $4 billion to help developing countries transition away from the super greenhouse gases could net a reduction of well over 100 gigatons of CO2 equivalents over 30 years.
"It is the low hanging fruit for climate," he said. "And it something that we can do that can proceed independently of domestic and international efforts."
Paving the way
The new EPA rule on household refrigerants came about as a result of several companies finally looking for alternatives to HFCs in their appliances. According to Claudette Juska, a research specialist also at Greenpeace, the flammable nature of the hydrocarbon replacement gases may have been considered unsafe up to this point. Safely dealing with those gases will require a change in installation and disposal infrastructure, but once that is in place for household refrigerants it may hasten the switch away from HFCs in other industries like home air conditioning.
"Most manufacturers have found that when they redesign their systems to use hydrocarbons they find efficiency improvements as well," said Juska. "So you would be reducing CO2 emissions that way as well."
As the climate and energy bill buildup continues this week in the U.S. Senate, the focus will remain on CO2 as the primary climate change villain. But it may be equally important to start the global phase out of HFCs as well.
"The industry wants a slow phase down," Davies said, adding that the replacement gases are substantially cheaper than some patentable HFCs, perhaps lowering profits. "We think we can phase them out, and we are optimistic that there are better ways to do everything."
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