HFC’s were something of a Godsend at one time, saving the ozone layer from depletion and providing a less damaging alternative to chlorofluorocarbons [CFC’s]. CFC’s where widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems, until they were banned globally in the eighties by the Montreal protocol. It was discovered that these refrigerants were eating up the ozone layer in the stratosphere and were at the centre of the issue regarding the huge ozone hole which appeared over Antarctica. The preservation of the ozone layer is essential, in order to protect the planet from the harmful rays of the sun.
Faced with the CFC ban, large companies such as ICI and DuPont looked for a workable alternative, and hydrofluorocarbons [HFC’s] became the replacement. But now this substitute has also fallen out of favour as the leaders of 170 nations recently signed an agreement to phase out HFC’s by the middle of the century. HFC’s are a problem as they are greenhouse gases, and are more troublesome than Carbon Dioxide, emitting as much pollution yearly as 300 coal-fired power plants. The measures to reduce and phase out HFC’s are part of an ongoing bid to combat climate change, as their greenhouse effect is 10,000 times as strong as carbon dioxide, and their emissions are rising by 10% annually.
Negotiations in Kigali, Rwanda concluded in an agreement to cap and reduce use of these damaging refrigerants beginning in 2019. Developed countries taking part include the US, said to be the world’s second worst polluter, surpassed only by China, who will also take action. China has come under criticism as they intend to begin their reduction of HFC’s in 2024, raising concerns that the slow pace will limit any favourable outcomes. Some other countries including Pakistan, India [the world’s third worst polluter] and some Gulf states stated that they would prefer a later 2028 start. They claim their economies need time to grow, and recover from the change in air conditioning and refrigeration technology, although experts say as with the earlier CFC phase out, prices of alternatives are likely to fall, easing this situation.
China and India have seen an incredible rise in the use of heat trapping HFC’s over the last decade.
Air conditioning has become extremely popular for homes, offices and cars in these countries, a phenomenon which threatens to undermine the Paris accord put in place to help deal with climate emissions. Many African countries along with small island states pushed for a fast response to this problem during the negotiations, as climate change will have devastating effects upon their environments.
Measures to limit the impact on our planet from gases such as CFCs and HFCs have been the subject of ongoing international research and developments by HVAC manufacturers. The decision to limit the use of these refrigerants was anticipated by many companies who make or supply air conditioning systems, and the general consensus is that other chemicals which do not pose the same threat can be formulated. Future HVAC systems may eliminate the need for refrigerants all together.
The deadline of the ban for HFC’s used in refrigerators is 2021 and in chillers 2024, escalating the race to find feasible replacements. New products will also be subject to worldwide government approval to ensure a satisfactory, safe and effective solution. Environmental groups do not feel that cost will be too much of a problem for the industry, as significant commitments in this area have already been implemented.
Berkeley National Laboratory asserts that by 2050, approximately 1.6 billion new air conditioning units will be activated. This will potentially raise global temperatures substantially, prompting the need for alternative technology. Air conditioning is not the only cause of HFC growth in the atmosphere as these gases can also be found in insulating foams, fire suppressants, inhalers and data cooling systems.
To sum up:
HFC’s have gone a long way towards allowing the ozone layer to begin repairing itself after the ravages of CFC’s, but unfortunately they come with their own negative side effects. This means they have to go.