Class of ‘Super GHGs’ Becoming Focus of Heightened Concern

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The growing global demand for air-conditioning and refrigeration – humanity’s need to cool things off – is ironically now emerging as one of the biggest potential contributors to future global warming.

A class of gases known as HFCs – hydrofluorocarbons – used by the refrigeration industry to cool people in their cars and homes and to keep food from spoiling, is turning out to be the primary culprit.

Developed to replace the gases responsible for depleting the ozone, HFCs have a powerful worsening effect on global warming and have created another challenge for lawmakers to confront, an emergency within an emergency.

Each molecule of these man-made gases, often called F-gases, has a global warming potential (GWP) many thousands of times more powerful than a molecule of CO2, thus earning them the nickname "super GHGs."

New projections indicate that unless these gases are rapidly phased out with available alternatives that are benign by comparison, they could negate the impact of all other emissions reductions efforts now being contemplated. By 2040, the international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency estimates HFCs will have added 180 gigatons CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere.

"If we control these gases internationally, we will prevent the release of the equivalent of 25 years of total U.S. emissions" said S.F. LaBudde, campaign director at the Environmental Investigation Agency. "It could hinge on getting the HFC provisions of the Waxman-Markey bill right."

The Waxman-Markey bill, the framework national climate legislation now working its way through the House, contains provisions for the phase out of HFCs, but LaBudde says it provides very little incentive for the U.S. refrigeration industry to reduce production levels.

The draft provisions set a high ceiling on acceptable production levels and allow industry to bank unused allowances for future use. That means there is no real downward pressure for industry to switch to alternatives. Industry gets to start off with a lot of extra breathing room and to push that bubble of air forward for years without the need to take urgent action. LaBudde warns that this built-in cushion delays action 10 or 15 years into the future, time which the science says we simply do not have.

The U.S. State Department is engaging on the HFC issue on the international stage through its involvement with the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement now more than 20 years old that has successfully created a global regime for the control of ozone-depleting substances.

There is widespread recognition that use of refrigerants will skyrocket in developing nations in coming decades, and that an amendment to the Montreal treaty is urgently needed to set the world on the right path.

Complicating the circumstance, however, is an inadvertent outcome of the success of the Montreal Protocol: It has accelerated a switch away from refrigerants that deplete the ozone to refrigerants with high global warming potential – the super GHGs. The State Department and EPA are getting behind efforts to amend the Montreal agreement. The idea is to allow the Montreal mechanism – which is established and effective – to assist in the phase out of HFCs in order to protect the climate.

That extension of the Montreal treaty’s authority into the climate change arena is ruffling some political feathers in Washington, and the interagency process within an administration still finding its feet is slowing down US action. 

"It’s totally irrational not to use the Montreal Protocol. This step of getting an amendment is vital, absolutely essential," said Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The astronomical potential of HFCs to worsen global warming came to worldwide attention in an article published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). One of the primary substitute gases the industry started to use beginning in 1990 is HFC-134a, a super GHG with global warming potential 3,830 times that of CO2 and an atmospheric lifetime of 14 years. Other gases in the same HFC class have also been developed, including HFC-23, which has a GWP almost 12,000 times greater than CO2, and a lifetime in the atmosphere of 270 years.

Some industry players are poised to lead the way to substitutes that will not worsen global warming. Both Honeywell and Dupont are promoting a product called 1234-YF which they are touting as a replacement for the super GHGs used in automobile air conditioning systems. In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, Dupont Board Chairman Chad Holliday talked up the product:

"We have also committed to help our customers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by providing products that help them do so, including our new automobile air conditioning refrigerant. This new product has one-fifth of one percent the global warming potential of the current product in use. That is a 350 times improvement. And so the path we began many years ago with the Montreal Protocol of using science to deliver better solutions continues."

The new auto refrigerant has a global warming potential that is 4 times that of CO2, and a lifetime in the atmosphere of only 11 days. It could be a successful product in the EU, which just adopted a stiff regulation for phasing out F gases in automobiles starting in 2011, six years earlier than expected.

That is the kind of accelerated retirement schedule that the campaign being run out of the Environmental Investigation Agency wants to see enshrined in the Waxman-Markey bill. Without strict standards, there will be insufficient incentives for manufacturers to develop needed substitutes for the whole class of super GHGs, since users of refrigerants will be reluctant to pay the extra cost. Chemical companies like Dupont and Honeywell will be hard pressed to recoup their costs of developing them.

Aside from developing climate-friendly products, however, Dupont is in a strong position to influence needed changes to Waxman-Markey. The draft bill was based on a blueprint provided by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), of which Dupont was a founding member. Dupont also understands the HFC issue intimately, as Holliday reminded Congress last week:

"Our sustainable approach to climate change is informed, in part, by our experience with chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s. When atmospheric research on ozone depletion led to the realization of the role of CFCs, we actively engaged in the development of the Montreal Protocol and an international agreement to phase out the use of CFCs."

Now Dupont is in a position to help in the urgent effort to phase out HFCs as one of leading manufacturers of this dangerous class of super GHGs.

Publicly, the company supports passage of the Waxman-Markey bill, and a spokesperson told SolveClimate that Holliday’s testimony is "our position on the legislation." The testimony does not specifically address the HFC provisions in the 648-page draft bill, but Holliday makes a general promise:

"DuPont will continue to do its part, working not only to further reduce our own footprint, but also by using our science to bring new products to market that help others reduce their emissions."

Concerned observers want to see Waxman-Markey get stronger on the question of HFCs for another reason. They fear weak legislation will undermine the ability of the State Department to negotiate a strong amendment to the Montreal Protocol. That international treaty, already in force and working successfully with all the stakeholders in the refrigeration industry both in the U.S. and abroad, could assume authority to jump start the phase out of HFCs. As LaBudde notes:

"We don’t have the luxury of a decade to spin our wheels."


Graph courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency