Out With the Old

Travel & Environment Desk
Alternatives to HFC do not need to be developed; hydrocarbon, ammonia and carbon dioxide are already available
Out With the Old
Out With the Old
The alternatives to HFC have different thermodynamics and safety properties, meaning there is no "one size fits all" solution

The deal signed last week by 197 countries to drastically reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases has been hailed by experts as a key step toward limiting the planet's warming.

Legally binding, the deal is an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol and aims to reduce HFC gases, which are as much as 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.

United Nations scientists say the amendment can help reduce the planet's warming by as much as 0.5°C, although some believe the figure to be closer to 0.2°C. Either way, the impact of the deal—if the signatories deliver on their pledges—is unquestionable.

The main goal is to limit global warming to below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, by the end of the century. Should we fail, the consequences will be catastrophic, so every little bit counts.

Just like when HFCs were developed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons following the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1989, some think the same needs to happen now to reduce dependence on HFCs.

But alternatives don't need to be developed; they already exist.

-- HFC and Low-GWP Alternatives

HFCs are used as coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators. They are nonflammable, chemically stable and nonreactive, but they also have a high global warming potential, which means they are major contributors to climate change and the planet's continued warming.

Their versatility and availability makes HFCs the top choice for use as refrigerants, but throughout the years, alternatives have been developed in the hope of encouraging industries to ditch HFC gases in favor of more climate-friendly, low-GWP options.

Alternatives include natural refrigerants, such as hydrocarbon, ammonia and carbon dioxide—yes, you read that right. Carbon dioxide, which is infamously known as the leading greenhouse gas causing global warming, is a viable alternative to HFC as a coolant, because it has a negligible impact in the small quantities released by cooling systems and, as mentioned above, it is thousands of times weaker than HFCs used today in terms of trapping heat.

There is also the option of replacing current HFCs with their altered versions that trap much heat, such as the so-called unsaturated HFCs, or hydrofluoroolefins, which are less potent greenhouse gases but have a higher GWP than the alternatives mentioned above.

-- Road Ahead

Industries are reluctant to begin using more climate-friendly options for the simple fact that they are loath to make the one-time investment.

Developed nations, such as the United States and members of the European Union, actively began reducing their HFC consumption last year, gradually moving toward climate-friendly alternatives. They have committed to reducing their HFC use by 85% in the next 20 years.

Most developing nations have pledged to freeze the use of HFC gases by 2024 before slashing it, while a small group, including Iran, India, Iraq, Pakistan and other Persian Gulf states, says they can begin reducing their emissions by 10% from 2028 and no earlier.

The alternatives to HFC have different thermodynamics and safety properties, meaning there is no "one size fits all" solution. The suitability of every option must be considered separately depending on where they will be used, which might require a complete overhaul of equipment.

In some circumstances, the level of ambient temperature at the location of the equipment must also be taken into account.

According to the UN, the total cost of phasing out HFC use will amount to $4 billion to $6 billion.

However, as Nancy Sherman, an expert on HFCs at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, puts it, “Businesses are working hard to bring alternatives to market, as they will have a business advantage as HCFCs and high-GWP HFCs are phased out."

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