Can We Replace HFCs?

A Hard Curve To Bend (Source: NOAA)
A Hard Curve To Bend (Source: NOAA)

What was supposed to be an informal meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping has yielded something substantive: an agreement to include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol, and thus an agreement by both nations to reduce their use:

As some environmental analysts had hopedPresident Obama and President Xi Jinping of China found room to maneuver on global warming in their California desert retreat. They sidestepped the super wicked issues impeding restrictions of the greenhouse gas of greatest concern, carbon dioxide, and staff released a joint statement on plans to cut releases of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a potent group of heat-trapping gases.

Legally, this is something of a bank shot.  The major problem with HFCs is that they are an extremely potent greenhouse gas, but since they also can deplete the ozone layer, they can be regulated under the Montreal Protocol — a second-best alternative, but the only one available given the toxic politics of climate change.

All very well and good, especially because China has refused to consider HFC reductions in the past.  But how exactly is this supposed to be done?  What will we replace HFCs with?  The Montreal Protocol originally limited and then banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in refrigeration and air-conditioning.  The Protocol stands as the shining example — indeed the only example — of successful international environmental governance, but it succeeded in no small part due to the development of Hydroclorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which substituted for CFCs.  Then, when HCFCs turned out also to deplete the ozone layer (although not nearly to the same extent as CFCs), HFCs stepped into the breach.  Now what?

It’s not as if people will put up with a lack of refrigeration or air-conditioning.  Now, whenever a substance is banned, industry usually declares that the sky is falling and there is nothing it can do, and then just all of a sudden finds something to do — particularly if that thing happens to be under patent.  But it would be nice to know whether something is in the pipeline, or how R & D is proceeding to replace HFCs, especially since HFC use is skyrocketing.  This is especially true given how much scientific research has been backed apart under the sequester, and anything regarding support for atmospheric science research is DOA with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  So what’s out there?  Industry has so far been quiet, which I take as a good sign that there is a replacement.  But I haven’t heard of anything yet, and that is disquieting, if for no other reason than that it indicates that a purported phase-down might be purely cosmetic.

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Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Can We Replace HFCs?”

  1. Jonathan,

    There has been some debate about this but readily available substitutes for most uses do appear to be available. In particular, there are low-GWP HFC blends on the market that are (1) not ozone depleting, (2) have very little impact on climate because of their short residence time in the atmosphere, and (3) seem to work just fine as refrigerants. These blends have been opposed by some auto manufacturers because of concerns about fire risk but have been adopted by others without complaint for the EU market.

    Best,
    MW

    p.s. HFCs have been difficult to manage within the international system precisely because they do not deplete the ozone layer. So you have a solution under the Montreal Protocol causing a problem for the UNFCCC. Until this weekend, China has steadfastly opposed managing a climate problem within the ozone regime. The US and Mexico have been pushing this idea for a number of years.

  2. Jonathan,

    There has been some debate about this but readily available substitutes for most uses do appear to be available. In particular, there are low-GWP HFC blends on the market that are (1) not ozone depleting, (2) have very little impact on climate because of their short residence time in the atmosphere, and (3) seem to work just fine as refrigerants. These blends have been opposed by some auto manufacturers because of concerns about fire risk but have been adopted by others without complaint for the EU market.

    Best,
    MW

    p.s. HFCs have been difficult to manage within the international system precisely because they do not deplete the ozone layer. So you have a solution under the Montreal Protocol causing a problem for the UNFCCC. Until this weekend, China has steadfastly opposed managing a climate problem within the ozone regime. The US and Mexico have been pushing this idea for a number of years.

  3. Jonathan,
    Water vapor is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas and it has a far greater effect on climate than carbon dioxide and HFCs combined. Any attempt to control the climate without controlling water vapor is doomed. This is why all previous attempts to control the climate have failed and will continue to fail. Failure is probably the best word to describe the climate change movement.

  4. Jonathan,
    Water vapor is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas and it has a far greater effect on climate than carbon dioxide and HFCs combined. Any attempt to control the climate without controlling water vapor is doomed. This is why all previous attempts to control the climate have failed and will continue to fail. Failure is probably the best word to describe the climate change movement.

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Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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