Refrigerant Emissions: why you should be worried about your air conditioning unit

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The ozone layer helps to protect life from harmful ultraviolet radiation. So, when the scientific community issued a warning of the threat to the ozone layer from chluorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - commonly used in air conditioning units, refrigerators and aerosols - politicians and businesses naturally ignored it. As a result, a hole in our ozone layer above the Antarctic opened in 1985. At this point, the international community acted accordingly and these substances were phased out through the Montreal Protocol in 1987. 30 years later and the ozone layer is beginning to recover, but problems in the refrigerant industry remain.

The same action gap remains today with Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants in circulation across the world as the primary replacement for CFCs. Every refrigerator, freezer, water cooler, chiller and air conditioning unit/ heat pump contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable chilling. These refrigerants might not be ozone depleting substances now, but many of them have incredibly high Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) and are heavily contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. GWPs are carefully calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to measure the warming effects of gases in relation to the most common greenhouse gas: CO2. The most widely used refrigerant in New Zealand is R-134a (or HFC-134a) and has a GWP of 1430, meaning it is 1430 times more powerful than CO2 in warming our planet!!

But, if their sole purpose is to act as a cooling agent for primary use within appliances, then how are these refrigerants emitted into our atmosphere?

In 2016, 486 tonnes of the HFC refrigerants in appliances across NZ were lost to the atmosphere via leaks, equipment failures, servicing and catastrophic failures such as car crashes. A recent study commissioned by NZ’s Ministry for the Environment (MfE) highlighted annual leak rates of refrigerants in appliances. Among the big hitters were walk-in chillers and refrigeration cabinets with up to 17.5% and 7% annual leak rates respectively. This has led to Project Drawdown, a world-class research and communication organisation dedicated to providing solutions to reverse climate change, labelling Refrigeration Management as the number one solution to reverse devastating global warming.

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As we are seeing temperature records broken all across the world in recent years, our reliance on air conditioning units and refrigeration is presenting a vicious feedback loop, where demand for refrigerants is a direct result of global warming and the subsequent greenhouse gas emissions from the refrigerants themselves. We can ill-afford to make the same mistakes as before and let action slip by the wayside with this issue. It is calculated that HFCs could be the source of as much as 19% of increases in global warming by 2050 if ‘business as usual’ continues.

So, this begs the question of why these HFC’s are still in circulation? Particularly when viable low, or zero GWP refrigerants are either available now or being readied for commercial release within one to three years. Cost is the biggest factor. The operational costs of refrigerant leak avoidance and destruction are high, resulting in a projected net cost of $903 billion by 2050 according to Project Drawdown.  

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The Kigali agreement in 2016, an extension on the Montreal Protocol, will see the phasing out of these damaging HFCs by 80% over the next three decades. However, emissions are likely to increase before they start to decline, as 90% of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life through disposal, so efficient disposal of these refrigerants is essential.

New Zealand has a fairly mild climate with temperatures rarely matching the same soaring highs as countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where reliance on air conditioning and refrigeration is at an all-time high. The demand for refrigerants in many of these developing nations has inevitably led to an increase in global GHG emissions.

So, whilst tackling the problem of high GWP refrigerants in New Zealand is vital, there also needs to be emphasis on the regulation of these dangerous refrigerants on a global scale. All the necessary tools are at our disposal to tackle this problem, but progress so far has been slow at the policy-level. Tackling the role of refrigerant emissions is a unique problem that will require global-level solutions implemented on a local scale through the cooperation of businesses, manufacturers, academia, civil society and governments.  

Antonia Gerlach