Tuesday January 3, 2012
Warming the world
By MENG YEW CHOONG
Hydrofluorocarbons, while saving the ozone layer, poses a problem – global warming.
FIRST, the good news: the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is actually working. After all, it is one of the few international accords that are universally ratified. In essence, it means no one is disputing the need to protect the ozone layer, a zone in the stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s high frequency ultraviolet light, which is potentially damaging to all life forms.
The Montreal Protocol spells out how the ozone layer should be protected by gradually phasing out the production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion.
The treaty entered into force in January 1989. It is believed that when everyone keeps to their end of the bargain, the ozone layer will show substantial signs of recovery by 2050.
With 196 parties putting their signatures down as agreement to phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances, it has been estimated that nearly 97% of these chemicals have been eliminated from use.
These are chlorinated substances such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), both widely used in the 1960s and 70s to fight fires or act as refrigerants in cooling systems such as refrigerators and air-conditioners.
Replacing CFCs and HCFCs is the more benign hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), which are now widely used in energy-efficient air-conditioners and refrigerators.
The bad news is that HFCs, great refrigerants as they are, contribute to global warming. It has been found that HFCs, while saving the ozone layer, are capable of trapping heat in the atmosphere, and they do so in magnitudes that are many times more than that of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Some HFCs have a global warming potential greater than 1,000 times that of carbon dioxide.
So while HFCs are good news for the ozone layer, their increasing concentration in the atmosphere is beginning to worry scientists. Regulators are now calling for action to be taken on this refrigerant, even as governments are already deep in battle with containing rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane.
A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer noted that there needs to be detailed action to monitor and curb the rising use of HFCs.
The report, released in November in Bali, Indonesia, during the 23rd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol, implored policymakers to make HFCs a priority as proper management of this substance holds the key to attaining the target of capping global temperature rise at 2°C or less this century, as agreed under the global treaty on climate change.
The report acknowledged that while HFCs as a whole now only contribute to warming by around 1%, its use is increasing rapidly.
“By 2050, if action is not taken, they could rise so high that they almost cancel out the tremendous climate benefits won earlier by the phase-out of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances,” said the authors, led by Nobel Laureate Mario Molina of Mexico, and Dr A.R. Ravishankara of the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
HFC use is climbing as there is consumer demand for electrical products that require insulation foam and refrigerants (for example, vending machines that cool drinks before dispensing). If the use of HFCs continues at this pace, then by 2050, their effect on global warming could be equivalent to nine gigatonnes of CO2 (9,000,000,000 tonnes) under a scenario where CO2 emissions are meant to be capped at 450 parts per million. Seen another way, that nine gigatonnes is “equivalent” to around 45% of total C02 emissions. It is estimated that the overall global warming impact of HFC emissions currently represents less than 2% of the total global greenhouse gases emissions.
Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director, said in the report’s foreword: “Dramatically cutting CO2 emissions from society’s inefficient energy use is the key to catalysing a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy. It is also central to delivering a stabilisation of the atmosphere as outlined by the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But there are other low-hanging fruit in the climate change challenge and this new scientific paper spotlights one of them – HFCs. By some estimates, action to freeze and then reduce this group of gases could buy the world the equivalent of a decade’s worth of C02 emissions. Preventing strong growth in HFC use is an important climate mitigation option the world has now.”
It is not all gloom and doom, though, as there is every reason to believe that if governments succeed in managing the growth of HFCs right now, there is a chance that HFC emissions could fall below one gigatonne by 2050. There are alternatives that use hydrocarbons and ammonia, as well as HFCs with less global warming potential and shorter lifetimes than those currently used. And of course, there is also the “brutal” way of taking care of both energy consumption and HFCs by eliminating the use of air-conditioning totally through sensible building design and good insulation to minimise heat gain.
That said, it does not mean that the path towards substituting HFCs with alternatives is going to be a smooth one. As it is, not many of the substitutes can replicate the energy performance of the current batch of HFCs in use. If manufacturers are forced to put in HFC substitutes now, the energy performance of some electrical appliances might drop, resulting in more energy use. Replacements should also be non-toxic (ammonia at high concentrations poses a problem), stable, not combustible (propane is a problem) and easi-ly available.
Search for substitutes
It is evident that much research still needs to be done. A few years ago, major users of air-conditioning and refrigeration like McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Red Bull, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever banded together to form Refrigerants, Naturally! It is now recognised as a credible global initiative of companies committed to combating climate change and ozone layer depletion by diligently looking for HFCs substitutes and creative re-engineering, and this initiative is supported by UNEP and (surprise!) Greenpeace.
Refrigerants, Naturally! (www.refrigerants naturally.com) aims to pour research dollars into investments that will allow them to progressively replace HFCs with natural refrigerants in point-of-sale cooling applications.
In 2003, McDonald’s opened the world’s first HFC-free restaurant, located in Vejle, Denmark. All appliances from the meat freezer to the shake machine, the air-conditioning and ice dispenser, do not use HFCs. Instead, it experimented with systems that used CO2, hydrocarbons, and propane as substitutes, a move that earned praise from Greenpeace.
However, McDonald’s was perceived as not doing enough during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the company was an Olympic Top Sponsor, and Greenpeace was quick to take McDonald’s to task for still being stuck “only in testing phase with non-HFC refrigerants”. In a corporate blog entry that year, McDonald’s vice president Bob Langert admitted: “Greenpeace believes we can do more. So do we, but being green is not always easy!”
According to a Danish study, an average restaurant contains about 33.7kg of cooling refrigerants – most of which are HFC-based. Some of these refrigerants can escape into the environment when there is leakage, improper repairs or disposal. In the restaurant industry, it is estimated that leakage occurs at a rate of 5% to 7%, or about 5kg per year.
The inescapable fact is that progress on the actual use of natural refrigerants has been slow – on the technical front and the economic front. At the meeting in Bali, developing giants like India and China (as well as a small group of members) were roundly criticised for blocking moves by 108 parties towards HFC reductions. Earlier on, the 108 parties had supported a plea by low-lying island nations to cut back on the use of HFCs as a means of curbing climate change.
However, a small group of parties used a procedural manoeuvre to block the start of formal negotiations, delaying action for at least another year. India, supported by China, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Venezuela, Brazil and Malaysia, objected to two proposals to amend the Montreal Protocol to include HFCs in the Bali discussions, stating that HFCs are outside the mandate of the Protocol and instead, asked that parties concentrate on priority issues within the Protocol’s mandate.
In a position statement released just before the Bali talks, the European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee, a sector group of the European Chemical Industry Association, said: “We are encouraging parties to the Montreal Protocol to move forward with a constructive dialogue to achieve an agreement for a global cap and reduction for HFC consumption on a global warming potential-weighted basis. The proposals submitted by North America and Micronesia for a cap and reduction of HFC consumption, in our opinion form a good initial framework for a dialogue, recognising that any final agreement needs to be realistic.”
According to a US-based non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, the Montreal Protocol is overly encouraging companies into HFCs even though these chemicals are no longer necessary from a technical standpoint in most applications. Its president Durwood Zaelke, who was also present in Bali, said: “The majority of the parties in Bali want to correct this mistake with these super greenhouse gases, but without leadership from China and India, they can’t succeed.”