Action 67. No longer free to be HFCs- what does it mean to you and me?

Hydrofluorocarbons isn’t exactly a word that rolls off the tongue nor is it arguably a common part of our public dialogue, so I was a bit surprised to see the NYT invoke HFCs repeatedly in an article about the recent meetings between President Obama and China’s President Xi Pinying (OK, I was also a little shocked to hear that these two major world leaders actually had a conversation about greenhouse gases).

Hydrofluorocharbons, or HFCs, are increasingly used as refrigerants, as fire retardants and in insulating foams, to replace ozone-depleting chlorine- or bromine-containing variants of the chemical. You may recall CFCs, a term we used to hear a lot about in the 90s as playing a major role in the development of the ozone hole; these were phased out of use in the early 2000s, and HFCs provide many of the similar functions without the attendant ozone-depleting effects.

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Source of US Fluorinated Gas Emissions. From USEPA. ODS= Ozone Depleting Substances

Unfortunately, HFCs are not benign- some of them are among of the most potent greenhouse gases out there. Their use is on the rise; according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, emissions of HFCs have risen 250% since 1990 as they have been phased in as CFC replacements. And HFC emissions are projected to continue to grow, by nearly 140% bet ween 2005 and 2020 as demands for refrigeration continue to grow and as more ozone-depleting substances are replaced.

It’s not like we haven’t been down this road before, of trying to solve one chemistry problem with another  fix that comes with its own serious side effects. For example, PCBs were a popular chemical synthesized beginning in the early 20th century that had fantastic lubricating and insulating properties, solving all kinds of electricity transmission and mechanical obstacles. Except they also happened to be incredibly persistent and toxic. OOPS.  Yes, here we are again; the decline of CFCs is a huge boon for the ozone hole, but we are staring at a very serious greenhouse gas problem with the rise of HFCs, possibly undermining progress we had made with the phase-out of chlorine-containing fluorocarbons.

So, what are we to do? The quote that got my attention in the NYT article was from Representative Waxman (D-CA)’s office which stated,

“A global phase-down of HFCs would eliminate more heat-trapping gases by 2050 than the United States emits in an entire decade.”

That’s a goodly amount of GHGs! But how do we get there?  The US and China need to get serious on emission reduction targets, and it sounds like they might. A recent White House press release confirms the two countries’ plans to move forward on this issue, including amending the Montreal Protocol, which regulated the phaseout of CFCs, to cover HFCs. Fortunately, they have some good models to look at, including the EU’s steps toward managing fluorinated gases, among which include a recent ban in mobile air conditioning units of all GHGs with a global warming potential >150 (essentially, that means all gases which molecule-for-molecule have 150 times or more the warming potential of CO2). We also need to look at novel ways to both reuse and recycle through appropriate recapture and repurposing of HFCs through innovations in the electricity transmission and refrigeration fields, among others.

What can you do as an individual? As with all these other actions, I vote for both the personal and the political. Personally, there are some concrete steps each of us can take, including:

Thank President Obama for addressing HFCs and supporting the Montreal Protocol Amendment. I am hopeful that moving HFCs into the international dialogue will be an impetus to some good legislation both via the Protocol and other mechanisms, and I also plan to ask my representatives to work for good legislation in this arena.

-make sure you are appropriately recycling any items, such as refrigerators and freezers, with coolant in them. Sometimes folks try to remove the refrigerants from appliances prior to discarding them- unless you know exactly what you are doing, you stand a good chance of venting those chemicals into the air, which is what we very much want to avoid. Check with your state about local options for appropriate removal and treatment of appliances with refrigerants (WA state residents can go here).

-Reduce, reuse, recycled aluminum! Back in Action 42 I talked about the impact that virgin aluminum foil has in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. One reason for this is that the aluminum industry’s processes emit a lot of perfluorocarbons, a potent GHG. US EPA estimates that in 2002, the aluminum industry’s CO2 equivalent emissions were equal to those of about a million cars! Choosing recycled aluminum is one small way you can push the market for a lower-footprint consumer material.

And above all else, let’s continue the conversation- getting world leaders to make hydrofluorocarbon a part of their lexicon is a major step in the right direction.

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