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Another climate crunching gas

Commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners, HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases that are set to add a potentially disastrous 0.5°C to global temperatures by the end of the century if left unchecked.

Commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners, HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases that are set to add a potentially disastrous 0.5°C to global temperatures by the end of the century if left unchecked.

Worldwide power consumption for air conditioning is forecast to rise by more than 30 times the present rate by the end of this century. As incomes in developing countries increase and urban areas grow, people are set to use more energy for cooling than heating.

Not only is extra energy required for all this cooling but the refrigerant gases currently in use can have an even worse effect on global warming than carbon dioxide.

Climate change’s impacts on extreme weather and society are becoming increasingly clear and undeniable. Yet, as Dana Nucutelli wrote in The Guardian last week:

“While we are making progress in solving the problem, we’re still moving too slowly, and one of the two political parties governing the world’s strongest superpower continues to deny the science.”

The climate pact to slow planetary warming to a manageable degree was rati­fied by European Union member states last month.

Malta was among the first seven EU nations to submit ratification documents for the United Nations. A vote to allow Europe’s Member States to submit their climate documents individually was intended to avoid getting bogged down in further talks.

While all this was going on, a coalition of over 100 countries, including the United States, were pushing for early phase-out of an even more potent type of greenhouse gas. In October, the Montreal Protocol was amended to phase out the world’s fastest growing greenhouse gas, hydrofluorocarbon (HFC). A spike in use of this coolant gas around the world is threatening to undermine the climate agreement deal struck in Paris last year unless alternatives can be found.  It was in the 1970’s that scientists first observed the appearance of a stratospheric hole in the protective layer over the poles.

At the time the trouble was traced to chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), a synthesised gas originally developed for use in spray cans, cleaning solvents, foam blowing, fire retardant but mostly as a coolant in refrigeration and air conditioning. It was later discovered that CFC was a greenhouse gas that could be 14,000 times more powerful than carbon when it comes to warming up the planet. This was reported in an assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change.

We may simply need to get better at designing passive energy buildings which don’t heat up during the day

A successful process to phase out CFC gases was started off in 1992 with the Montreal Protocol. Failure to find a way of repairing the ozone layer would have been bad news for life on Planet Earth. Happily at the time, alternatives were introduced in the form of HFC. Gradually the ozone hole began to shrink as harmful radiation from the sun was averted. Scientists have recently forecast that the damage humans caused to the ozone layer could be completely healed by the middle of this century.

Although the new generation of HFC products, unlike CFC, has no ozone depleting potential it is in some forms as much a powerful greenhouse gas as the gas it was designed to replace. Taking carbon as a baseline at 1 GWP, these man-made HFC alternatives which were brought in to save the ozone layer can be several thousands of times more effective than carbon dioxide at wreaking havoc on climate. Carbon dioxide can be absorbed into the ocean after a century but hydrofluorocarbon gases linger for hundreds of years in the atmosphere.

In June 2013, the United States and China agreed to work together with other countries by updating the Montreal Protocol to phase out consumption and production of HFCs. The replacement of these gases could be crucial if the world is to avoid runaway climate change, driven by a temperature increase of 2°C.

At a meeting in New York earlier this year, calls were made for a schedule to phase out the gas and money was pledged to help developing nations adapt in countries where HFC use is rapidly increasing. This was followed up with another meeting in Rwanda last month when world leaders reached agreement on the HFC phase-out. A whole new class of refrigerants with a global warming potential of zero is being developed although there may still be some questions about toxic residues with some of them.

Hydrofluoroolifins are another possible alternative. These are of low toxicity and economically viable but it is yet to be seen how they behave in the upper atmosphere over time.

As an outcome of the October meeting in Kigali, richer economies are to start limiting their use of HFCs within a few years. Some developing countries will take longer and China is not expected to cut production or use until 2029.

In the meantime, we may simply need to get better at designing passive energy buildings which don’t heat up during the day and curb the need for air conditioning. Here a cue may be taken from the termites which always build their nests on an east-west orientation to avoid over-heating.

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