The landmark 1987 Montreal Protocol was an amazing example of how, as a species, we can come together and work to heal planet Earth. The ozone was depleting due to harmful refrigerant chemicals present in every refrigerator and air conditioner on the planet at the time. Those chemicals are called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and they absorb heat within appliances to create a cooling effect. Since the Protocol, they have been phased out and replaced by HFCs, which do not deplete the ozone layer. We are now seeing proven recovery of the ozone layer as a direct result of the introduction of HFCs, however despite their clear positive impact, they are still hugely damaging to the planet. HFCs are major contributors to global warming; their capacity to warm the planet is 3,830 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and so must be seriously considered as a crucial factor in global climate policy.
When it comes to the climate crisis it may seem that the topic of refrigeration is absent from public discussion, but despite the lack of debate, there has been great progress. On October 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, 170 countries met to amend the Montreal Protocol and address the new issue of HFCs, resulting in the Kigali accord. This accord set a target to phase out HFCs globally, starting with high income countries who are required to phase out refrigerants containing the chemical from January 1st 2019.
Substitute chemicals for HFCs are already on the market, including natural refrigerants such as propane and ammonium, which are far more sustainable and have the potential to greatly reduce global warming impact. This was largely thanks to the work of Greenpeace and Faron with their GreenFreeze refrigeration units. Their open source technology, which hit the market in 1993, uses natural refrigerants, and is now readily available all over the world. The UK, along with the rest of the EU, is working to phase out HFCs with a reduction target of 79% in the use of the chemical between the years 2015 and 2030.
Even with the Kigali accord it is likely that the use of HFC refrigerants will still grow until their use is fully halted. According to IEA’s report, The Future of Cooling, the Global energy demand for air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050. As living standards improve across developing countries, and temperatures rise, AC units will become more accessible, increasing demand.
Inline with the accord, high income countries are already phasing out HFCs, and low-income countries have longer-term targets, with the latest being 2028. Whilst there may be progress on new market refrigerants, the disposal of existing units is key to reducing global temperature and solving the climate crisis. The crucial reason for urgent and careful disposal is that 90% of refrigerant emissions get released at the end of their lifespan.
It is likely that your refrigerator or AC unit, if you have one, does not use hydrofluorocarbons but it is important to check its energy rating and make sure it is labelled ‘CFC and HFC-free’. If it isn’t then it will need to be disposed of properly and replaced. If you need to dispose of your fridge, contact your council, if UK based, to come and collect it.
The EU has made progress on eliminating HFCs, but it is still a global issue and phasing down needs to happen immediately. Learn more about the Kigali Agreement coming into force here.