Your Air Conditioner and Refrigerator Are Killing the Climate: What Are the Alternatives?

Global temperatures are on pace to make 2016 another record-breaking year. It is feeding into a classic deadly environmental cycle: The hotter it gets, the more people want to buy air conditioners. And the more we use A/C, the more we emit greenhouse gases that, in turn, increase global warming. 

But the planet may get some help soon, if world leaders can come to an agreement on how to handle the greenhouse gas emissions of coolants found in air conditioners and refrigerators. The agreement they’re currently working on is actually an attempt to close a loophole in a landmark, three-decade-old treaty that was originally meant to help the environment.

In 1987, nearly 200 nations agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, a coolant used in refrigerators and air conditioners, with the adoption of the Montreal Protocol. The treaty was agreed upon after scientists confirmed the link between CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer—which protects the Earth’s surface from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation—and two years after the discovery of an ozone hole in the stratosphere above Antarctica.

Hailed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,” the treaty has successfully repaired the ozone layer. Recent climate projections indicate that the ozone layer on track to return to 1980 levels between 2050 and 2070. According to the U.N. Environment Program, the treaty “will have prevented 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030, averted damage to human eyes and immune systems, and protected wildlife and agriculture.”

A terrible downside

While the Montreal Protocol has repaired the ozone layer, a grave downside of the treaty has emerged. CFCs were replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), compounds that may not harm the ozone layer, but have proven to be powerful greenhouse gases with remarkable heat-trapping capability. Since 1990, according to the EPA, there has a 258 percent increase in HFC emissions.

"For perspective, 16 ounces of HFC 404a [a type of HFC that doesn’t deplete the ozone] equates to burning approximately 4.5 barrels of oil from a climate perspective,” notes EOS Climate, a San Francisco-based firm that helps companies like grocery chains protect the environment from refrigerants. Put another way: The 10 or so ounces of it that keeps your refrigerator cold is equivalent to nearly 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. To generate that amount of emissions, you’d have to drive an average car about 1,600 miles.

Today, the HFC contribution to the greenhouse effect is 1 percent. It may not seem like much, but their excessive heat-trapping potential make HFCs’ contribution to global warming disproportionately high—up to 23,000 times greater than CO2. Without any action to curb their use, UNEP warned, HFC emissions could rise to as much as 19 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Then there’s the increasing number of air conditioners and refrigerators, rising along with a growing population. “As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, people are buying air conditioners at alarming rates,” writes Lucas Davis, faculty director at the Energy Institute at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. “In China, for example, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years. Each year now more than 60 million air conditioners are sold in China, more than eight times as many as are sold annually in the United States.” He notes that a typical room air conditioner can use between 10 and 20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.

Refrigerators too, while ubiquitous in the rich world, are becoming more popular in emerging markets across the developing world, where consumers are projected to increase spending eightfold by 2030, to $63 trillion. In fact, says Tassos Stassopoulos, a senior vice president at AllianceBernstein, a global asset management firm, the proliferation of refrigerators "signals a country's economic progression."

But with economic development often comes environmental degradation. And the steady proliferation of air conditioners and refrigerators present such a serious threat to the environment that UNEP warned in a 2011 report that HFC emissions could offset much of the climate benefit achieved by Montreal Protocol. Recognizing that this potential reversal of fortune would be a terrible blow to the environment (not to mention the much-lauded Montreal Protocol), leaders have committed to closing the “HFC loophole” that currently sullies the 1987 agreement.

The biggest climate deal since the Paris agreement

Representatives of the Montreal signatories, including EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, who is leading the United States delegation, are currently working on an HFC amendment. They recently met in Vienna to determine nations’ schedules to reduce their use of HFCs and financial support to assist developing nations with the phase-out.

"We are seeing tremendous projections in the growth in the use of HFCs, especially in developing countries" said McCarthy in an interview, adding that replacing HFCs with more climate-friendly alternative “could avoid a rise of 0.5 degree Celsius by the end of the century.” Valerie Volcovici, who covers climate for Reuters, notes that “this would keep countries on track to meet the goal agreed at the Paris climate summit in December to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C.”

The U.S. is committed: At their 2013 summit in California, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping first agreed to work together on a deal to address the HFC threat. Secretary of State John Kerry recently joined the ongoing discussion. The high-level attention is indicative of the importance of the HFC deal. Volcovici said the deal “could be the most significant measure to combat global warming since last year's Paris climate agreement.”

The amendment could be finalized as early as next month, when negotiators gather in Kigali, Rwanda, for the 28th Meeting of the Parties of the Montreal Protocol. "Almost every country here (in Vienna) seems to be working under the premise that we are going to work out an agreement this year," said David Doniger, the director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A bold plan needed

There is time to set things right, but according to scientists, it would require a bold plan. A 2013 study led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, for example, found that an aggressive mitigation of HFCs could contribute about 20 percent to the "avoided warming" by 2050. But defining “aggressive” is tricky; negotiators are deliberating over several different proposals. "The proposal for developed countries centered around setting a baseline of 2011-2013 with a 10 percent reduction from there by 2019," writes Steve Seidel, senior adviser at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, adding, "Most of these countries have already begun limiting HFCs though domestic regulations."

“An ambitious phase down could reduce global warming by .9°F by the end of the century,” writes Brent Harris, a principal at Redstone Strategy Group, an environmental and social issues consulting firm, in a recent New York Times op-ed. “That reduction may not sound significant, but it is. Without an amendment, there is little doubt the effects would be devastating, although the science of climate change cannot yet pinpoint the precise damage that would occur.”

He writes:

It is not hard to imagine scenarios where avoiding or delaying .9°F of additional warming proves invaluable, especially when paired with further reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. As warming crosses specific temperature thresholds, scientists expect ice sheets to melt and the Amazon rain forest to die off. Tipping points like these could prove irreversible, and eventually lead to famine and several feet of sea-level rise. Dollar for dollar, reducing HFCs offers a huge benefit for little comparative cost. But with so little public attention focused on these negotiations, the danger is that we could end up without an amendment, or one that is not sufficiently ambitious to deal with this threat.

Alternatives are available

New compounds have been developed for refrigeration and air conditioning applications. Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) are one example. So-called "fourth generation" refrigerants, they have a global-warming potential that is a fraction of HFCs’. HFO-1234yf, for example, has a global warming potential that is 99.7 percent less than HFC-134a, the current chemical used in most vehicle air conditioners.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency made its first moves to try to phase out HFCs, proposing a rule that legalizes the use of alternatives. Since then, the EPA has approved alternative refrigerants through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program, a mandate of the Clean Air Act that empowers the agency to evaluate and regulate substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals. Some of the approved alternatives include ethane, isobutane, propane and two chemicals known as R-441A and HFC-32. In a 2014 ruling, the EPA said that the approvals for climate-friendly refrigerants were made "on the basis of current evidence that their venting, release, or disposal does not pose a threat to the environment."

But while these alternatives have very low or non-existent global warming potential, being hydrocarbons, they are extremely flammable, and must be handled with care. In the long run, other factors must play a role in getting emissions down.

“Energy would be more expensive with a price on carbon, so more attention would go to building design,” writes Davis. “Natural shade, orientation, building materials, insulation and other considerations can have a big impact on energy consumption. We need efficient markets if we are going to stay cool without heating up the planet.”

If you want to help stop heating things up, consider not using your air conditioner unless it’s really unbearable. And think about getting an Energy Star-certified air conditioner and refrigerator, which use less energy, save you money and are less impactful on the environment.

“If all refrigerators sold in the United States were Energy Star-certified,” the EPA says, “the energy cost savings would grow to more than $400 million each year and 8 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions would be prevented, equivalent to the emissions from 750,000 vehicles.”

If you really want to remove your refrigerator from your environmental footprint, consider switching to a homemade refrigerator made of clay pots, sand and water.

Since your electric refrigerator runs 24/7, it’s easier to reduce the climate and financial impact of your air conditioner. Here are six tips from CNET:

  1. Check for home leaks by signing up for a home energy audit to find if your home is leaking cool air and get recommendations to seal it up.
  2. Put your thermostat on the right wall (keep it off the wall next to a hot window to prevent your A/C from running more often than needed).
  3. Close the blinds to keep out the heat of the sun.
  4. Use a fan—yes, they do keep you cool.
  5. Turn the thermostat up when you leave the house.
  6. When you’re at home, set the thermostat to the highest temperature you can stand (the U.S. Department of Energy recommends an indoor temperature of 78 degrees).

Have any recommendations to reduce the impact of your air conditioner or refrigerator? Share them in the comments.


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