18 October 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Many HFCs are very potent greenhouse gases, up to 20,000 times better per molecule at trapping the earth's heat than carbon dioxide.
Ironically, HFCs, when they came on the market 20 years ago. were touted as saviours of the planet. In the 1980s scientists discovered the ozone hole over the Antarctic.
Further, this hole had been caused by the depletion of ozone, or O3, by chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators, air conditioners and as aerosol propellants. The international community acted for once with a sense of great purpose and unity, and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 regulated the phaseout of the dangerous CFCs.
It has arguably been the most successful environmental treaty ever, and the earth's ozone layer is now reckoned to be recovering. The world community then looked for a replacement. In came the HFCs which did no harm to the ozone layer. But they were greenhouse gases all the same, just like the now banned CFCs, whose lingering presence in the atmosphere contributes 10% of the overall warming caused by greenhouse gases.
HFCs' contribution is smaller than that, because they have been on the market for a shorter time. But there is still a threat, says the Commission. Albeit a small threat, for now: according to a report by the University of Karlsruhe, HFCs currently contribute to the global warming equivalent of 1 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions. But emissions are growing from this small base, by up to 10% a year.
At the same time, the world aims to cut its regular CO2 emissions drastically. The EU has pledged a 90% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. In such a scenario, HFC emissions could make up a bigger proportion of greenhouse gas emissions by mid century since other greenhouse gas emissions would have dropped. One of the reasons for some HFCs' potency is their long half-life in the atmosphere of 140 years.
Car drivers in hot climates can relax, though, The EU is not banning air conditioning itself. There are substitutes. According to the Michael Kauffeld, a professor of refrigeration technology at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, there are substitutes for HFCs as refrigerants. Dimethyl ether, iso-butane. ammonia, water, CO2. Indeed, most new domestic refrigerators currently employ "low global warming" substitutes for HFC. But the figure varies widely from sector to sector. For industrial air conditioning systems sold today, the figure is only 25%. Kauffeld maintains that the complete phaseout of HFCs is possible in 20 technology sectors by 2020.
The Commission's aim - more modest than Kauffeld's - is to cut HFC use in most applications to about a fifth of today's output and ban it completely in some applications, such as the air conditioning units used in road vehicles and trains.
The draft proposal is expected to be published by the European Commission in early November. Scores of lobbyists from air conditioning manufacturers have signed up to the EU register of lobbyists in the last year. They will be arguing you have to look at safety, efficiency and cost considerations. Some of the substitutes are flammable. EPEE, the European association of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump manufacturers, argues that "many local and national building codes are still severely restricting the use of flammable and even mildly flammable substances." Along with manufacturers' liability, this is one of the "main hurdles" against alternatives being implemented. However, prof Kauffeld argues you can design around these issues.
Another argument against new HFC rules may well be that, while cutting emissions is all very good, unless the rest of the world cuts its HFC output too, there will be no point in Europe going it alone. But in fact Connie Hedegaard, the Environment Commissioner, has pointed to the need for a global phasedown of HFC gases "as soon as possible" and hopes to work through the Montreal Protocol.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 18 October 2012 at 03:12 PM by Pelle Neroth
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 October 2012 03:05 PM Legislation
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