As the next phase-out end date draws closer it is important that we do not lose sight of why the refrigerant changes have been taking place and what the end goal is – tackling climate change and reducing our carbon footprint. It certainly doesn’t help when there are people pulling in a different direction. In early November the United States began the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement (Global Climate Change Accord). The other 187 member countries must be looking on with their heads in their hands, as one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses decides to leave!
This isn’t the first time the refrigeration industry has had to face dramatic changes. A lot of refrigeration and air conditioning systems used to run on CFCs. When the initial research revealing that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer was reported, in 1973 (by Rowland and Molina), there was a great deal of scepticism. Even when the National Academies of Science issued a report, in 1976, affirming the destructive effects of CFCs, on stratospheric ozone, the industries directly affected disputed the claims and said it didn’t warrant drastic action. It wasn’t until 1987 that 56 countries, under the Montreal Protocol, agreed to cut CFC production - and its use - in half which, eventually, led to a worldwide phase-out.
The Montreal Protocol has had a crucial negative consequence; when countries began phasing out CFCs, manufacturers replaced them with HFCs. Although they are not ozone-depleting, they are potent greenhouse gasses - which contribute to global warming. Hence the high GWP phase-outs we are currently in the process of addressing.
Although scientific knowledge about global warming has been available for a number of years, the process of implementing any changes across a huge national and international sector was never going to be easy or straightforward.
Unfortunately a large percentage of the capital burden of refrigerant changes and upgrades has fallen squarely at the feet of the end user. This may explain why there are still many companies who have not made the decision to future-proof their business and make the necessary changes. It could be argued that, because of the capital outlay, there is a justification in the continued use of HFCs that currently fall below the imminent Global Warming Potential (GWP) phase-out values. There is also the strong argument that the new ‘drop in’ HCFC refrigerants are a suitable alternative, as they can offer some ‘breathing space’ to businesses trying to balance their environmental credentials against the impact of cost in the competitive markets they function in.
However, as important as it is that companies do not suffer any unnecessary financial burden, the continued use of both HFC and HCFC refrigerants currently do not offer a longer term solution to the global warming issue. This is why it could be argued that the refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump industry as a whole need to address this now, rather than wait 5 or 10 years when the required GWP levels are so low that man-made solutions are potentially no longer viable.
What is the solution?
Currently there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution within our industry. However, we can focus our efforts on the continued use of an obvious alternative to HFCs and HCFCs - natural refrigerants. With the continued improvements of technology, in both the commercial and industrial sectors, there is no reason why natural refrigerants like ammonia, CO2 and propane cannot be considered and used. As part of a well-designed system with good, planned maintenance they are as safe as any other refrigerant. Used in conjunction with secondary refrigerants, like glycol, only a low primary charge would be required – at a fraction of the cost of Freon refrigerants. It is also claimed that natural refrigeration systems as a whole are more economical to run – so a far better pay back on any investment. As we get ever closer to each round of the GWP phase outs, the cost of man-made refrigerants (and the upkeep of the associated systems) will continue to rise, so any investment made in future-proofing now will reap benefits in both the mid to longer term.
30 years on from the Montreal Agreement, the world’s decision to fix the hole in the ozone layer is paying off. So maybe by making the right decisions now - about the impact of our refrigerant choices on our carbon footprint - we can do the same with global warming.