Gases used widely in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries have the potential to erase many of the gains the world hopes to make in combating greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, a government-industry report says.
But alternatives to "F-gases" like hydrofluorocarbons are being used in commercially available products today, mostly in Europe, according to Greenpeace, which publicized the report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While the United States is behind Europe in phasing out F-gases - which are roughly 1,400 times more potent in their global warming potential than carbon dioxide - a piece of the climate and energy legislation now being debated in Congress could put a cap on them, said Kert Davies, Greenpeace's USA research director.
That could help boost alternatives like compressed carbon dioxide or isobutene in cooling systems, he said. The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo have started to turn to vending machines that use carbon dioxide instead of F-gases.
Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Unilever have formed a partnership working to replace F-gases in their refrigeration, Walmart and other stores have tried out similar systems for their refrigeration needs, and Ben & Jerry's worked with Greenpeace to test 2,000 "Greenfreeze" freezers in U.S. ice cream shops and markets, he said.
In fact, most of the major refrigerator makers in the world - Bosch-Siemens, Haier, Whirlpool, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Miele and Electrolux - now make refrigerators that use alternatives to F-gases, with more than 300 million sold around the world.
But none are currently available in the United States, where they remain illegal, he said - although General Electric said in October it will apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to make one for the U.S. market.
F-gases, which belong to a group of chemicals known as halocarbons, were responsible for 17 percent of the world's man-made climate change as of 2005, according to a Greenpeace analysis of the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change.
Ironically, these gases were seen as a more environmentally friendly option to the chlorofluorocarbons such as Freon that were banned in 1992 by the Montreal Protocol because of their ozone-depletion effects, he noted.
But the F-gases are rapidly catching up to the CFCs they replaced in becoming a major cause of global warming, he said. While Denmark has banned some uses, and the European Union has committed to banning them for vehicle air conditioners, more needs to be done to phase them out of everyday use, Greenpeace contends.
Monday's report - done by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the U.S. EPA and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and a scientist from chemical giant DuPont - noted that, if left unchecked, the growth in use of F-gases could undo nearly half the greenhouse-gas reduction work that the IPCC has called for in clean energy and reduction of fossil fuel use over the coming decades.
In fact, the EPA has named them one of six greenhouse gases that it considers a threat to human health - one potential avenue by which the federal government could seek to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions (see EPA Says GHG Emissions Pose Health, Nat'l Security Risk).
While the gases make up "a very small percentage of all global warming gases, it's a rapidly expanding percentage," Davies said. "We're trying to head off this rising insult to the climate. We can avoid that if we work very hard and get the right incentives in place."
Right now the energy and climate bill being debated in Congress does contain some caps on F-gases and timelines for phasing down their use, though it doesn't call for their elimination, Davies said.
While Greenpeace isn't a fan of some of the aspects of the bill, including compromises that would give away some permits for emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by polluting industries, the nonprofit is a fan of the F-gases caps, he said (see Come Get 'Em: Gov't Plans to Give Freebies Under Cap-and-Trade).
How those caps – if they survive in a final form of the bill – and the efforts of manufacturers of air conditioners and refrigerators to phase out these gases might align remains an open question, of course.
It isn't just a problem for the United States, Davies added.
In India and China, when they gain a little bit of wealth, what do they want? They want a refrigerator, they want an air conditioner for their house, they want a car with an air conditioner," he said. "They want the same lifestyle we've learned to use and abuse in this country. They need better technology."