The Biggest and Most Unfamiliar Contributor to Climate Change

We’ve been hearing a lot about climate change in recent years. There are record-breaking and catastrophic events taking place — from Hurricane Katrina, to the Ottawa tornadoes of 2018, to the current wildfire in Australia – it seems that everywhere you look there are new and unexpected climate events affecting different parts of the planet.

When trying to identify the root causes of these environmental disasters, we are often told about the impacts of burning fossil fuels and other petrochemicals in energy production. And it’s true, the CO2 produced from petrochemicals that have been trapped in earth for millions of years is one of the most significant and important sources of green house gas emissions, and herculean efforts will need to be made, at all levels, to cut our emissions down to zero in the coming years.

What I was surprised to learn in recent weeks is that the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions is from a culprit that has been lying well below the radar. According to the authors of Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is not burning fossil fuels at all, but instead from the cooling chemicals found in refrigerators and other appliances like residential and commercial air conditioners, even automotive A/Cs.

Photo by Sabrina Wishak from Burst

According to Project Drawdown’s page on Refrigerant Management:

Every refrigerator and air conditioner contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable chilling. Refrigerants, specifically CFCs and HCFCs, were once culprits in depleting the ozone layer. Thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, they have been phased out. HFCs, the primary replacement, spare the ozone layer, but have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (emphasis added).

Drawdown describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution, it describes its history, the carbon impact it provides, the relative cost and savings, the path to adoption, and how it works.

With outsized impacts on the global warming (up to 9,000 times the effect of carbon dioxide), it seems ironic to think that that our love for cool homes and food preservation has not once, but twice, put life on Earth in peril.

To be fair, it is not the use of refrigerants that is the culprit, but the management of coolants within them, either at a point of failure (e.g., when the cooling equipment springs a leak) or at the time of disposal (i.e., when they get left on the side of the curb). Up until a few years ago, there were no global plan for the appropriate disposal and management of HFCs, meaning that the cooling gases could have been free to escape into the atmosphere where they have been contributing to planetary warming (see a little more irony here?) ever since.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, though HFCs represent a small fraction of the current total of all greenhouse gases, their emissions are projected to increase nearly twentyfold in the coming decades, mostly due to increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning, particularly in developing countries. If HFC growth continues on the current trajectory, the increase in HFC emissions is projected to offset much of the climate benefit achieved by phasing out ozone-depleting substances.

What Is Being Done

There is no need to despair, however, nor should we all vow to abandon our refrigerator and return to the iceboxes of old. The good news from Drawdown is that this problem has been identified by world leaders and manufacturers of HFCs, and solutions are being developed. More specifically:

In October 2016, officials from more than 170 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda, to negotiate a deal to address this problem. Through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the world will phase out HFCs—starting with high-income countries in 2019, then some low-income countries in 2024 and others in 2028. Substitutes are already on the market, including natural refrigerants such as propane and ammonium.

Scientists estimate the Kigali accord will reduce global warming by nearly one degree Fahrenheit. Still, the bank of HFCs will grow substantially before all countries halt their use. Because 90 percent of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life, effective disposal of those currently in circulation is essential. After being carefully removed and stored, refrigerants can be purified for reuse or transformed into other chemicals that do not cause warming.

There is reason to be optimistic about this climate solution, however the battle is not yet won – the page on refrigerant management does not say what is being done to address the refrigerators that are already in circulation, only that careful management of these will be necessary.

An online search, the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada has established the Refrigerant Management Canada program, an industry solution for refrigerant waste disposal. It is an environmental care program championed by industry leaders that brings together contractors, wholesalers and collection service providers committed to the responsible disposal of surplus refrigerants from the stationary refrigeration and air conditioning industry. The program appears to be supported by the federal Environment and Climate Change Canada, although it is unclear at this point whether it is also working to meet the Kigali Protocol, or what percentage of refrigerants are currently captured by this program.

Right to Repair

As it should happen, our higher-end refrigerator gave up the ghost last February at the not-so-ripe age of 6 years old. When the repair-person came to diagnose the problem, he said that there was a problem with the cooling system and that, given the way most refrigerators are constructed, the cost of parts and labour would just about equal the cost of buying a new one. So much for opting the repairing option…

We bought a new fridge from an appliance specialist who offered to take back our fridge and dispose of it properly. Because our old fridge was still valuable, they offered to repair it in-house and to donate it to a local at-risk youth centre, which we gladly accepted. This scenario raises two issues. First the challenge of repairing refrigerators which can mean that more of them may end up improperly disposed of in landfill, but also the existence of voluntary disposal programs.

What you can do is support local and national efforts to put in place “right to repair” legislation, which ensures that manufacturers of products, particularly electronics, make their repair intuitive and cost effective (thereby minimising premature product obsolescence). Apple Inc., is regarded by many as having particularly difficult products to repair.

Around the world, the EU has put in new standards that mean that, as of 2021, firms will have to make appliances longer-lasting, and they will have to supply spare parts for machines for up to 10 years. While some critics argue that this does not go far enough, it is certainly a step in the right direction. In the United States, nearly 20 States have “right to repair” legislation in the works.

At home here in Canada, the Province of Ontario sadly voted down one such bill, which had been proposed by Liberal MPP Michael Coteau in May 2019, but there are efforts to take it federally. That being said, efforts are still underway to advocate for such legislation in Canada, including by non-profit Open-Media, whose petition garnered over 15,000 votes at the time of writing this post.

What Can I Do?

You can support this effort by signing the petition here. Repairing your refrigerants means they will delay their entry into landfill until a time when more comprehensive responses have been put in place.

In the meantime, make sure your refrigerant supplier/service contractor participates in the RMC or a similar program; you can ask the retailer where you purchased it, or another local retailer whether they will take back and dispose of your refrigerant equipment safely and in line with the Kigali Protocol.

Finally, when it comes time to purchase a new product, make sure to buy one that does not contain any harmful gasses — these already exist, and will soon become the norm, you just need to ask about them.

And as information is power, make sure you share this information widely. If you’re not in Canada, look up your own local programs to ensure that when your refrigerants come to the end of their life, they are properly disposed of. If no measures are in place, consider writing to your elected officials, or to the maker of your appliance to tell them what your expectations are for safe disposal.

What are your thoughts and reactions to the post? Were you aware of the impacts of HFCs on climate change? Share your ideas below and also please share this post with your friends and family to further raise awareness of this issue.

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