New Technologies May Help Bring International Cooperation on Climate Change

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The EPA has announced that, on November 5, “countries across the world took the historic step to work together” in reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the environment (EPA press release).

Every year, the 197 countries that are Parties to the Montreal Protocol meet to discuss how best to manage, reduce or eliminate substances that deplete the ozone layer. This year, the Parties agreed to develop an HFC phase-out plan, to be added to the Protocol in 2016.

HFCs are not directly ozone-depleting substances. In fact, they were originally introduced as replacements for the extremely ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). However, the international community is taking action against HFCs because these chemicals contribute dramatically to climate change. HFCs may have a “global warming impact at up to 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide,” according to UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Director Steiner describes the urgency of phasing-out HFCs: “If we don’t get this genie back into the bottle quickly then, by 2050, we could be looking at as big a problem as the one we have just solved” (UN press release).

These moves toward international cooperation on HFCs may be brought about, in part, by recent technological breakthroughs. HFCs are most frequently released into the atmosphere through leaks, servicing and disposal of air-conditioning equipment from buildings and automobiles (EPA source). New technologies have introduced feasible HFC alternatives, particularly for refrigerants. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) presented findings to the Parties this year that “viable replacements exist” for HFC refrigerants in air-conditioning units (ORNL report). ORNL found that, in some respects, alternatives performed even better as refrigerants than HFCs, even for possible use in the world’s hottest climates.

The EPA has already amended its regulations to recognize the potential of emerging HFC alternatives. In April, the EPA revised its rules at 40CFR-82 to list these climate-friendly chemicals as acceptable replacements of HFCs for several uses: ethane, isobutane, propane, hydrocarbon blend R-441A and HFC-32 (difluoromethane). As the EPA reports in their fact sheet, “The substitutes are not ozone-depleting, and they have lower global warming potentials than currently-used refrigerants.” Nimonik posted a notification about the ruling here.

These new advances bring some hopeful momentum to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris this month. Of course, as substituting HFCs for CFCs demonstrated, replacing one pollutant with another can sometimes be like a battle against a hydra, the mythical beast grew two new heads for every one the hero severed. We cannot always see in advance the consequences of our technologies, but we can stay diligent and responsibly adapt to the latest challenges and opportunities.

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