Refrigerant phase-outs put the chill on climate change

Back in the 1980s, an international alarm was sounded when a growing hole in the Earth's ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic. This phenomenon was caused, scientists said, by the presence of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) such as the gases used in air conditioners, refrigerators and elsewhere.

There were predictions, if the ozone hole were to spread, of massive crop failures, an explosion in skin cancer rates and mass extinction of species. Concern over the problem became so widespread that it even became the subject of a skit on "Saturday Night Live."

ODS problems and solutions

Ultimately, however, the world community acted: In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed by 46 nations, mandating a global phaseout of ODS. Since then, scientists have shown that the production phaseout of ODS has helped to shrink the hole in the ozone layer, while at the same time helping to slow climate change.

The problem with this is that ODS substitutes still make their way into the atmosphere when refrigerators are recycled and air conditioners leak. Replacing chemicals that are 10,000 times more potent than CO2 as accelerants of climate change with ones that are a few thousand times stronger is no solution. Furthermore, as globalization and economic growth makes refrigeration increasingly available in the developing world, the climate change problem associated with growing use of ODS substitutes is getting worse

Studies have revealed [PDF] that cooling systems in places including grocery stores and office buildings in Southern California regularly leak 15 to 30 percent of their refrigerant per year. That means that, worldwide, millions of tons of climate change pollution is being released annually.

There are simple fixes to this leakage problem. In California, for example, equipment inspection and leakage standards have been adopted as part of the state's global warming law (AB 32). This has resulted in reduced ODS substitute losses into the air and savings for businesses that otherwise would have to buy recharge chemicals. In addition, companies are popping up to help manage refrigeration use [PDF], and some equipment operators are demonstrably leaking less.

The power of the U.S.-China pact

In June, President Obama and President Xi of China agreed to work together to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a key ODS substitute gas. This pact has the potential to reduce about 90 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050 (that's equal to roughly two years' worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions).

The U.S.-China pact could point the way toward a national and international policy on ODS substitutes. In the face of the growing urgency over climate change, we need a comprehensive solution to this problem.

The story originally appeared on the EDF Voices blog. Grocery aisle photo by Jonathan Feinstein via Shutterstock.