Starting in June of 2011, consumers in the United States should have the option of reducing their household’s contribution to climate change by choosing refrigerators that use climate friendly coolants. For the first time, companies like General Electric will introduce the use of “natural” refrigerants on a large scale. If this new type of refrigerant spreads, it could eventually have a significant impact on the climate, and buy time as further-reaching climate policies are implemented.
Unlike millions of refrigerator units in Europe, South America, China, and many other countries, household refrigerators in the United States use chemical coolants called HFCs, which are also used in home and car air-conditioning units. HFCs were phased into the market in the 1990s as a replacement for chlorine-based CFCs, which deplete the global ozone layer. However while HFCs may not harm the ozone, they are greenhouse gases up to 14,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Replacing HFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners with a less harmful chemical could therefore have a significant impact on the climate.
Fortunately a refrigerating alternative to both CFCs and HFCs exists and is already used in many parts of the world. Refrigerants made from hydrocarbons, sometime referred to as “natural” refrigerants, neither harm the ozone layer nor add substantially to climate change the way HFCs do. Hydrocarbon refrigerators first became popular in Europe during the 1990s, when industrialized countries began phasing out use of ozone-depleting chemicals. These first hydrocarbon refrigerators were developed at the urging of Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, which wanted to find a climate friendly alternative to CFCs. In 1993 Greenpeace collaborated with a manufacturer in Germany to introduce the first hydrocarbon refrigerators to the market.
Today more than four hundred million hydrocarbon based household refrigerators have been sold throughout the world. However they never caught on in the United States, partly due to early concerns that flammable hydrocarbons might prove dangerous. In 1994 the US Environmental Protection Agency decided to prohibit use of hydrocarbons as household refrigerants, because of a lack of information about whether the chemicals were truly safe.
Since 1994 manufacturers have improved hydrocarbon refrigerator models, and they have been used safely throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world. Hydrocarbons have also been adopted for use in aerosol sprays, furnaces, and other products in the United States. In 2008 the EPA gave permission for several US companies to use hydrocarbon refrigeration units in their stores. In 2010 the EPA began taking another look at the ban on household hydrocarbon refrigerators, and next year the agency is expected to approve the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants. This will pave the way for manufacturers and retailers to provide climate friendly refrigerator options to consumers throughout the country by June of 2011.
Widespread adoption of hydrocarbon refrigerants in the United States would set an important precedent at a time when more and more refrigerators are being made and sold in developing countries. If growing economies in the developing world can be persuaded to use hydrocarbons instead of CFCs or HFCs in their refrigerators, it will be good news for both the ozone layer and the climate.
An international phase-out of HFCs could be accomplished by amending the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that has successfully reduced use of CFCs and slowed deterioration of the ozone layer. By requiring the climate impacts of CFCs also be considered, the Montreal Protocol could help eliminate at least one important greenhouse gas even in the absence of international climate treaty. Earlier this year the United States, Canada, and Mexico joined together to introduce an amendment to the Montreal Protocol designed to phase out the use of HFCs.
Because they exist in the atmosphere in far smaller concentrations than the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, even the complete elimination of HFCs won’t have the same climate impact as a transition to renewable energy. However it would make a significant dent in future climate change, and could buy important time as countries around the world transition their economies to a clean energy future.
Photo credit: Stefan on Flickr