A New Report Suggests 6 ‘Magic’ Measures to Curb Emissions of Super-Polluting Refrigerants

Environmental groups say minimizing leaks of chemical refrigerants is critical, given their potency. The chemicals are thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide over the near term.

Air conditioner units sit in windows of an apartment building on July 20, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Air conditioner units sit in windows of an apartment building on July 20, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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Simple measures such as plugging leaks of chemical refrigerants from existing air conditioners and refrigerators could curb greenhouse gas emissions equal to 91 billion tons of carbon dioxide by the end of the century, according to a report published Thursday by a trio of environmental organizations.

That’s equal to nearly three years’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions from all fossil-fueled power plants in the world today.

“This is one of the few pieces of magic that we have to save the planet and we should put it to use in every possible way,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C., which co-published the report with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The groups identify six key measures for “lifecycle refrigerant management” to keep existing hydrofluorocarbons and other highly potent greenhouse gases that are in use in existing cooling equipment from leaking or being vented into the atmosphere.


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The measures include better detection and repair of leaking equipment as well as recycling or destruction of refrigerants when air conditioning or refrigeration equipment reaches the end of its useful life. 

Supermarket refrigeration systems, for example, are especially leak prone, leaking one quarter of their total refrigerant each year, according to the report. Incentivizing or requiring grocery store chains to plug leaks would go a long way to reducing emissions. 

Stronger regulations or incentives could also curb emissions when equipment is no longer used. Just 17 percent of the estimated 33 million pounds of HFC refrigerants potentially recoverable from retired U.S. equipment was reclaimed in 2020, according to the report.  

 The report also calls on chemical and equipment manufacturers to play a more active role in chemical recovery, either voluntarily or through regulations.

“This is an extremely welcome step to reduce and manage F-gases [fluorinated-gases], which are super pollutants and major contributors to climate change,” Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University, said of the report.

The initiatives would build on efforts already at work under a binding international agreement known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The agreement, which the U.S. Senate recently approved for U.S. ratification, phases down the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons by 85 percent by 2036 in developed countries and over a slightly longer time frame for developing countries.

The Kigali amendment focuses on “turning off the tap and changing production over to climate friendly alternatives,” said Alex Hillbrand, a climate policy specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a co-author of the report.  Hillbrand added that what the environmental organizations are calling for here is preventing existing hydrofluorocarbons and older fluorinated gases that can harm both the climate and the Earth’s protective ozone layer from leaking into the atmosphere.

“It’s really complementary to the work of the Kigali amendment,” Hillbrand said. “In many ways it’s the next frontier to upping our ambition for climate policy.”

HFCs are thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide over the near term,  and remain in the atmosphere for an average of 15 years.

Climate policy experts view reductions in the emissions of HFCs and other “short-lived climate pollutants” such as methane as the fastest, most effective way to address climate change in the near term.

“HFCs and other high global warming potential refrigerants are extremely potent so every molecule that we capture and reuse is an extremely cost effective action that we can take,” said Christina Starr, a senior policy analyst with the Environmental Investigation Agency and a co-author of the report.

NRDC’s Hillbrand said keeping HFCs and other fluorocarbons from leaking from existing equipment into the atmosphere poses significant logistical challenges as the chemicals are currently used in billions of appliances worldwide.

“There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all solution to bringing them back properly,” Hillbrand said. “There’s a mix of approaches that we propose. Some of these are incentives to do the right thing to help tilt the economics toward bringing them back into the economy rather than letting them go. Some of them are more looking toward enforcement.

“Right now it’s a federal crime to knowingly emit an HFC or a prior generation refrigerant, but it still happens quite a bit,” Hillbrand added.

The environmental groups’ report comes as the U.S. is considering new policies to further target existing HFCs and other damaging fluorocarbons. On October 17, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a notice containing a new analysis of the hydrofluorocarbon reclamation market and requested public comment on current fluorocarbon recovery and reclamation practices. The agency plans to issue new proposed regulations next summer. 

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New regulations for the recovery and reclamation of harmful fluorocarbons were authorized by Congress with broad bipartisan and industry support in 2020 in a bill that also gave EPA the authority to phase down new HFC production.  

Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, an industry group representing chemical manufacturers as well as air conditioning and refrigeration equipment manufacturers, said he generally supports the measures outlined in the report.

“I think this is an area where the industry and the environmental groups have a fairly consistent view,” Fay said.  “When we get into the details of how best to achieve it, it gets a little bit different. But I think the general support is there from all sides in terms of trying to figure out the best way of getting this done, and getting it done in a way that’s also cost effective.”