Refrigerants, specifically chlorofluourocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were once majorly responsible in depleting the planet’s ozone layer. Their capacity to warm the atmosphere is one thousand to nine thousand times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
To address this crucial issue, last October, 197 members of the Montreal Protocol* decided to phase-out HFCs in Kigali, Rwanda resulting in an incredible agreement. Through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the world will begin phasing HFCs out of use, starting with high-income countries in 2019 and then expanding to low-income countries from 2024
This single decision will likely prevent half a degree of warming— significant when one considers that the world’s goal is to keep warming significantly below 2 degrees Celsius. It was a monumental achievement, called by then secretary of state John Kerry “the biggest thing we can do (on climate) in one giant swoop”.
However, with global warming rising, so to, are we witnessing an marked increase in air-conditioning use. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 700 million air-conditioning units will have come online worldwide by 2030. All of this means parallel action is requisite: addressing the refrigerants coming out of use, as well as transitioning those going in.
There are many alternatives to hydrofluorocarbons for refrigeration, including different forms of HFCs that do not have a greenhouse effect, hydrofluoroolefins, isobutane, propane, propylene, and ammonia. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola, are already discontinuing their use of HFCs. Switching to a different refrigerant is also an opportunity to redesign equipment and appliances to be much more energy efficient and provide additional environmental and economic benefits.
The Montreal Protocol is arguably the most successful environmental treaty ever. Without it, the ozone layer would likely have disappeared by the middle of this century. Instead, the ozone layer is being replenished, and the ozone hole over the Antarctic is expected to disappear by 2060–2075. A 2015 report by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that saving the ozone layer prevented over 280 million cases of skin cancer (and 1.6 million skin cancer deaths), as well as 45 million cataracts in the United States alone.
*Thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the Ozone layer, CFCs and HCFCs have been largely phased out of use. It took two short years from discovery of the gaping hole over the Antarctic for the global community to adopt a legally mandated course of action. Now, three decades later, the ozone is beginning to heal.