Refrigerants: Global Warming's Overlooked Solution

Add to favorites

Managing the refrigerants found in everything from air conditioners to dehumidifiers can have a greater impact on global warming than other, more commonly discussed solutions. Best of all, anyone can do it. 

When it comes to reversing global warming, some solutions are well-documented.

Solar and wind power, reducing food waste, and plant-rich diets are widely acknowledged as particularly effective ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, one of the most impactful solutions—and by one measure, the most impactful solution—receives comparatively little attention. And unlike large scale projects such as installing a wind farm, it can be implemented with relative ease and significant effect by almost anyone.

That solution is managing the refrigerants that are used in everything from industrial air conditioning units to household dehumidifiers. In its New York Times best seller, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, the nonprofit Project Drawdown listed refrigerant management as the No. 1 solution.

Since publishing the book in 2017, Project Drawdown has updated its models to indicate that reducing food waste (another easily implemented solution) now ranks at the top. But refrigerant management still ranks as high as third. What’s more, a little bit of effort goes a very long way.

Greenhouse Gases Far More Powerful Than Carbon Dioxide

The reason? As long as they are present in the atmosphere, the chemicals used in these refrigerants are extremely intense greenhouse gases. And even though these chemicals disappear from the atmosphere much faster than carbon dioxide, in a 100-year time frame they still trap thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide does.

Consider the difference in global warming potential between car emissions and, say, leaky air conditioner emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons, or more than 10,100 pounds, of carbon dioxide per year. (The EPA’s total is based on calculations that the average gasoline vehicle gets 22 miles per gallon and drives approximately 11,500 miles per year.)

The same global warming potential over a 100-year period is contained in just five pounds of R-410A, a refrigerant common in home air conditioners and dehumidifiers, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. 

“You can get that much R-410A from 10 residential dehumidifiers or five window air conditioners,” said Michael Helme of Sustainable Warwick and New Yorkers for Cool Refrigerant Management

In other words, a handful of improperly disposed of or leaky air conditioners and dehumidifiers can have a greater global warming impact than a year’s worth of driving. Not surprisingly, leaks are a bigger problem in large systems, such as central air conditioning units or chillers used in grocery stores.

In 2011, the EPA estimated that the average American supermarket leaks enough refrigerant in one year to generate the same heat-trapping potential as 3.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of 336 gasoline-powered vehicles. Since it is often less expensive to top off leaky systems than to fix them, “small leaks are overlooked,” Helme said.

In addition to being found in air conditioners and refrigeration equipment, these chemicals are used in foams, aerosol propellants, and as solvents and fire suppressants.

Most refrigerants are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of chemicals that were the chosen substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which were banned worldwide in the 1987 Montreal Protocol. CFCs and HCFCs also trap heat, but have the added disadvantage of depleting the ozone layer.

HFCs are now being phased out. In 2016, another international agreement—the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol—was finalized, setting the stage for significantly limiting the production of HFCs. The agreement entered into force in January 2019 and has been ratified by dozens of countries. However, the United States has not taken action. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has estimated that phasing out these refrigerants alone could reduce global warming by 0.4 degrees Celsius—or one fifth of the Paris Agreement’s 2.0 degree goal.

What You Can Do

Studies indicate the ozone will heal itself within our lifetimes. Indeed, Guterres said the Montreal Protocol is “an inspirational example of how humanity is capable of cooperating to address a global challenge.” However, it will be decades before similar benefits are seen through the reduction of HFCs and other heat-trapping chemicals.

In the meantime, there are a number of steps individuals can take now to limit the impact of these chemicals on the atmosphere. 

  1. Dispose of air conditioners and dehumidifiers properly. Call your local resource recovery agency to learn what their policy is for disposing old units. In some cases, utilities will offer rebates and collect an old, working refrigerator if you replace it with a newer, energy efficient one.
  2. If you need to have your central air conditioning system serviced, ask your local HVAC service provider if they have a policy and procedure around the collection of refrigerants. Do the same with your local auto mechanic when you service your vehicle’s air conditioning system.
  3. When purchasing new units, look for ones that have newer chemicals with lower global warming potentials. For instance, you can examine the technical specifications panel inside the door of any refrigerator and see what type of refrigerant is used. New units that contain R-600a (isobutene) have a vastly lower global warming potential. (For commercial units, the EPA provides a database that is searchable by refrigerant type.)
  4. Get educated about and support policies that advance the production and use of alternatives. Bipartisan legislation is being considered in both the Senate and the House that would phase down production and importation of HFCs over the next 15 years. An EPA rule that limited HFCs in some regulated applications such as commercial refrigeration and household fridges and freezers was partially invalidated in the courts. However, a number of states, including New York, are stepping up with their own rules.
  5. Share your knowledge with family, friends, and neighbors. 

A Helpful Resource

Watch this online teach-in sponsored by New Yorkers for Clean Power to gain a deep understanding of refrigerants, how to safely manage them, and how to promote clean heating and cooling tech such as heat pumps.