Global treaty signed to ban HFC refrigerants

Air conditioners in China
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, which banned CFC refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators, writing:

The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects. The protocol is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.

The Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were the cause of a giant hole in the ozone layer, which has been shrinking ever since. Unfortunately, the replacement chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) had their own major problem: they are a seriously bad greenhouse gas, far worse than Carbon Dioxide. (Christine explains here) Also in the period between the Montreal Protocol and today, the use of air conditioning has exploded in the developing world as the middle class grows, and in the developed world as it gets hotter.

But this past weekend an agreement was reached to reduce and eventually replace HFCs by over 170 countries, including 100 developing countries like China and India where air conditioning use is growing fastest. This time, President Barack Obama called it “an ambitious and far reaching solution” to a “rapidly growing threat to the health of our planet”.

Of course, since he is Barack Obama and not Ronald Reagan, he is accused of banning air conditioning when people need it most, when at the same time they say global warming is a myth. There is a petition to ban air conditioning in the State Department and the White House so that Obama and Kerry can feel what it is like. Even the New York Times jumped on the bandwagon, titling a story Emerging Climate Accord Could Push A/C Out of Sweltering India’s Reach as if nobody in India will ever be able to get an air conditioner again.

But the fact of the matter is that they could get everyone to sign this (Including India) because it is, unlike the totality of global warming, something that can be technically solved. It’s chemistry; they used to make AC units with ammonia or propane but they were poisonous or explosive when things went wrong. Now some units are being made with butane and pentane mixes, But as TreeHugger emeritus John Laumer notes,

Refrigerant makers like Honeywell and Dupont have lobbied through ASRAE and USEPA to preclude these blends being used on the bogus claim that there is a fire hazard and a quantifiably unacceptable risk. Meanwhile, across the kitchen sits a gas stove with infinite leak potential and somehow that can be engineered to be safe enough. In fact this is simply a market protection lobbying outcome as the petroleum gas blends are made of commonly available components that any tiny supplier could formulate. Refrigerant equipment makers somehow are fine with it and I have a hunch products liability insurers are part of the cartel. Better design could easily solve the whole problem world wide.

CFCs and HFCs are demonstrably safer, but other chemicals can be formulated to do the job. Carbon Dioxide systems have been developed and shown on TreeHugger. Solid state systems are getting better and may eliminate the need for refrigerants altogether. Many manufacturers are have been seeing the writing on the wall for years and have been working on it; According to the Wall Street Journal,

Alternative coolants exist to power window-unit air conditioners, commercial chillers and household refrigerators, but many are unapproved for use in the U.S. Some are flammable. Manufacturers will have to convince regulators the new compounds are safe before retooling production. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re committed to doing it,” said Stephen Yurek, chief executive of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group. Many companies anticipated that so-called HFCs would eventually be banned. They have collectively spent billions of dollars researching alternatives, Mr. Yurek said, adding that his group supported a global framework for coolant regulations.

John Kerry said on Saturday:

It’s a monumental step forward that addresses the needs of individual nations but it will give us the opportunity to reduce the warming of the planet by an entire half a degree centigrade. Agreeing a deal to phase down the use of HFCs is the single most important step we can take to limit the warming of the planet. We all know that the window of time that we have to prevent the worst climate impacts from happening is in fact narrowing, and it is closing fast.

That seems to be a bit hyperbolic; this is a big deal, according to the NRDC it is “equal to stopping the entire world’s fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for more than two years,” but it is not like anybody has to give anything up, change their lifestyle or move from Phoenix to Detroit. They have until 2024 to even start phasing HFCs out, which will take decades.

I do not mean in any way to downplay the importance of this deal, but the next steps are going to be a lot harder.

Global treaty signed to ban HFC refrigerants
This is a very big deal, but just the first of many more bigger and harder deals that we need.

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