Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)

Hydrofluorocarbons, or "super greenhouse gases," are gases used for refrigeration and air conditioning, and known as super greenhouse gases because the combined effect of their soaring use and high global warming potential could undercut the benefits expected from the reduction of other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Used as refrigerants, they were introduced by the chemical industry to replace ozone destroying CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which have (almost) been phased out by the Montreal Protocol. HFCs are 3,830 times more potent than CO2 with a lifetime of 14 years.

Back in the late 1970’s scientists realised that we were punching a hole in the ozone layer with our liberal use of a man made chemical called CFCs in our fridges and air conditioners. Humans heeded this warning, got together in Montreal in 1987, and agreed to stop using CFCs. The Montreal Protocol remains one of the finest examples of international collaboration to protect the environment. To replace the ozone eating CFCs, we created replacements, HCFCs which are in turn being replaced by HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons. However, what we didn’t realise at the time was that although HFCs don’t put a hole in the ozone layer they instead are cooking us alive. Their potency as a greenhouse gas is up to 23,000 times that of carbon dioxide and their use is increasing at 10-15% per year. link


  • What is the Montreal Protocol
  • Replacing HFCs
  • The science of HFCs
  • International action
What is the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol is a landmark international agreement designed to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. The treaty was originally signed in 1987 and substantially amended in 1990 and 1992. It stipulates that the production and consumption of compounds that deplete ozone in the stratosphere - chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform - are to be phased out by 2000. more  Nearly 97% of ozone-depleting chemicals have now been phased out as of 2010. The net effect has been the elimination of the equivalent of more than 200 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, five years' worth of total global emissions, far more than has been accomplished by the Kyoto process. link. [The Montreal Protocol is widely viewed as one of the most successful environmental treaties because it essentially eliminated the use of CFCs, blamed for damaging the ozone layer over Antarctica. Unlike the Kyoto Treaty, it has been signed by all countries.] Although HFCs do not deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, they have high-global warming potential (GWP) and therefore pose a significant threat to the climate system. 

The number of countries ratifying the protocol has altered due to subsequent conventions - for more on the ratification process see here

November 2009: Failure of 'Super Greenhouse Gas' deal raises stakes in Copenhagen. The 198 nations of the Montreal Protocol began their annual meeting in Egypt on a note of contention that five days of discussions could not overcome. The 22-year-old Montreal Protocol has delivered an unbroken string of successes in the battle against ozone depletion, accomplished with comity and cooperation, but now observers say it has caught the climate virus. Rhetoric trumped getting down to business, as an agreement to rid the world of HFCs, enormously potent global warming gases, was postponed for at least another year. link

April 2009: HFCs and the current controversy and proposed action.
The Obama administration, in a major environmental policy shift, is leaning toward asking the 195 nations that ratified the ozone treaty (Montreal Protocol) to enact mandatory reductions in hydrofluorocarbons, according to U.S. officials and documents obtained by the Associated Press. "We're considering this as an option," EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said, emphasizing that while a final decision has not been made it was accurate to describe this as the administration's "preferred option."
The change - the first U.S.-proposed mandatory global cut in greenhouse gases - would transform the ozone treaty into a strong tool for fighting global warming. link

The Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that without controls, HFCs could be responsible for the equivalent of about 10 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2040, or about one-third of the world's current burn of fossil fuels. The obvious way to control them is in the same way that the Montreal Protocol phased out the CFCs. This would involve a direct regulatory approach, guided by an expert panel, with funding made available to help developing nations meet the cost of adapting affected industries.  link

Replacing HFCs

Alternatives. A variety of climate-friendly, energy efficient, safe and proven alternatives are available today to avoid use and emissions of both hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). In fact, for most applications where HFCs and HCFCs are still used in the world, more climate friendly alternatives could potentially be used.  However, due to different thermodynamic and safety properties of the alternatives, there is no "one size fits all" solution. The suitability of a certain alternative must be considered separately for each category of product and equipment and in some cases also taking into account the level of ambient temperature at the location where the product and equipment is being used. link

September 2016: Push to phase out disastrous greenhouse gas. A loose coalition of more than 100 countries, including the US and European nations, is pushing for an early phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a powerful greenhouse gas that if left unchecked is set to add a potentially disastrous 0.5C to global temperatures by the end of the century. HFCs are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioning systems. link

The science of HFCs

Because they do not affect the ozone layer, HFCs broadly replaced CFCs as coolants in everything from refrigerators, air conditioners and fire extinguishers to aerosol sprays, medical devices and semiconductors. Production of the refrigerant used in car air-conditioners, a chlorofluorocarbon known as R-12 (commonly known as Freon) was banned at the end of 1995 and replaced by R134a. In the EU, HFC-134a (also called R-134a) will be banned as from 2011 in all new cars, with a new fluorochemical HFO-1234yf refrigerant taking its place. 

Some science experts now suggest CO2 as a better choice refrigerant. According to Ray K. Will, a senior consultant at SRI Consulting, HFC-134a used in home, auto, and retail refrigeration applications made up 16% of 2007 global fluorocarbon consumption of 1.2 million metric tons. The trouble with HFC-134a is that it has a GWP (global warming potential) 1,400 times greater than that of CO2, the standard against which other global-warming substances are measured. To meet its obligations to reduce global-warming gases under the Kyoto protocol, the EU ordered new carmakers to use refrigerants with a GWP of less than 150 starting in 2011. With a GWP of 4, HFO-1234yf meets the EU's standard. Although no other government entity yet requires a low-GWP refrigerant in cars, automakers that sell in many countries will want to reduce engineering, supply, and maintenance costs by using one air-conditioning system globally. Cooling systems that use HFO-1234yf, fluorochemical makers say, are more energy efficient than those that use CO2 and can be easily dropped into existing air-conditioning systems with a little tweaking. CO2, by contrast, will require an entirely new compressor system that works at higher pressures than fluorochemical systems. Most people think of CO2 as a gas that pours out of power plant smoke stacks. However, the Alliance for CO2 Solutions hails CO2 as a white knight poised to both keep car interiors cool and help save the environment. more

July 2015:  EPA restricts climate-warming chemicals. The Obama administration moved to restrict the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the most potent greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. The Environmental Protection Agency declared that certain uses for HFCs are prohibited and certain alternatives can be used. The move is part of President Obama’s second-term push to slow climate change, in part through regulations limiting greenhouse gases. The EPA said the private sector is already moving away from HFCs. Without the right regulations, the EPA estimated that HFC use would double by 2020 and triple by 2030. link

March 2015: Sugar - a natural refrigerant that could help reduce global warming. Could the sugar you have in your morning coffee help prevent global warming? UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is putting the question to the test at a store in Somerset, where it is using a refrigerant derived from waste sugar beet in its fridges and freezers. Not only does the CO2-based refrigerant, called eCO2, have a global warming potential of one, 3,922 times less than R404A, the refrigerant most commonly used by supermarkets,  it is also derived from a more sustainable source than other CO2-based refrigerants, which are often derived from hydrocarbons or ammonia. link

November 2011:HFC increasing use poses greenhouse gas problem in the future.            A rise in the use of "ozone-friendly" HFCs has prompted experts to voice concerns that the potent greenhouse gases could be a problem in the future. A UN report says that HFCs, many times more potent than CO2, could account for up to 20% of emissions and hamper efforts to curb climate change. They are widely used in fridges and air conditioning, replacing CFCs and HCFCs that damage the Earth's ozone layer.  HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbons) are a popular choice by refrigeration manufacturers of because they are deemed to be a "like-for-like" replacement substance for Chlorofluorocarbons and HCFCs which are banned or being phased out under the Montreal Protocol.  However, the replacement substances - HFCs - act as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So while they do not harm the Ozone Layer, experts have warned that their growing popularity could lead to an accumulation that could hamper efforts to limit human-induced global warming. link

March 2011: The EPA announced approval of the refrigerant HFO-1234yf. HFO-1234yf has a global warming potential that is 99.7% less than the current chemical (HFC-134a) used in most car air conditioners. Over the next few years, HFO-1234yf will become the new standard for U.S. automakers; the refrigerant has also been approved for use in Europe and Japan. The change will be better for the environment, the EPA said. link    
Dec. 1 2010: Over 400 companies plan to phase out HFC refrigerants after 2015. link

July 2010: GM first to replace HFCs with friendlier coolant.
General Motors announced that it will stop using HFC-134a from its air conditioners by 2013, in a first from an industry seeking greener auto coolants. It will be replaced with HFO-1234yf, which has a global warming potential that is just 4 times that of CO2 and exists for only 11 days. Other US, European and Japanese automakers are expected to follow suit. However BeyondHFCs, a Brussels-based international network of organizations, is pushing for “natural” refrigerants, saying adoption of HFO-1234yf would create more environmental damage. According to the group, tests show the substitute can cause “incalculable risks for humans” in the case of a car accident. link

May 2010: Update on replacement for HFC-134a. Honeywell and DuPont have formed a joint manufacturing venture to produce a new refrigerant for use in automotive air conditioning systems. The new refrigerant has 99.7% lower global warming potential (GWP) than the current refrigerant, HFC-134a. 

June 2010: HFCs will be major cause of expected rise in GHG through 2020. U.S. State Department projects the nation will see a 4% leap in heat-trapping gases in the period between 2005 and 2020. The rise in emissions by 2020 will be largely due to the increase in an often forgotten class of "super" greenhouse gases, known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, the report says. These gases, used as refrigerants in appliances and elsewhere as replacements for the ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons, can be more than 1,000 times as potent as carbon dioxide. CO2 emissions, though, will increase only 1.5%. Other major greenhouse gases, methane, nitrous oxide and perfluorocarbon emissions, will rise more rapidly, at 8%, 5% and 4%, respectively.  link

International action

October 2016: Is the Kigali deal to cut HFCs monumental? Delegates meeting in Rwanda accepted a complex amendment to the Montreal Protocol. US Secretary of State Kerry, who helped forge the deal in a series of meetings, said it was a major victory for the Earth. But some critics say the compromise may have less impact than expected. Richer economies (the US, EU and others) will start to limit their use of HFCs (the fastest growing greenhouse gas) within a few years and make a cut of at least 10% from 2019. Some developing countries, specifically India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states will not freeze their use until 2028. China, the world's largest producer of HFCs, will not actually start to cut their production or use until 2029.  link

July 2016. Vienna climate meeting aims for progress on deal to cut HFC use. Diplomats meeting in Vienna plan a major step toward a deal under the Montreal Protocol to decrease the use of a potent greenhouse gas, in what could be the most significant measure to combat global warming since last year's Paris climate agreement. link

June 2016: India-US talks could avoid 0.5C temperature rise. Halocarbons, such as CFCs and HFCs trap heat when leaked into the atmosphere and are responsible for about 8% of the global warming impact. These coolants are harmless to the ozone layer but up to 10,000 times as effective as CO2 for trapping heat. As developing countries such as China and India are set to install some 700 million air conditioners in the next decade, HFC concentrations are set to rise 140%.Revamping the Montreal Protocol could be potentially a big step.  link

June 2013: US and China agree to phase down use of HFCs. The United States and China intend to work together and with other countries to “phase down” the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). A global phase-out would be the equivalent of cutting 90 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050, an amount nearly equal to two years’ worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions. link

December 2011: EPA permits new refrigerants. The U.S. EPA today issued a rule making greener refrigeration gases legal in household refrigerators and some commercial freezers. The agency added three hydrocarbons as acceptable alternatives in household and small commercial refrigerators and freezers through EPA's Significant New Alternatives Policy program, SNAP, which evaluates substitute chemicals and technologies for ozone-depleting substances under the Clean Air Act. The new rule legalizes the hydrocarbons propane, isobutane, and a chemical known as R-441A as refrigerants. These newly-approved refrigerants can be used to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-12 and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)-22 in household refrigerators, freezers, combination refrigerator-freezers, and commercial stand-alone units. Refrigerators and freezers in the U.S. also chill with hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, which do not destroy the ozone layer as do older refrigerants; but they are thousands of times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, pound for pound. link               

Europe's Mobile Air Conditioning (MAC) Directive 
The European commission recently ruled that the MAC Directive (pdf) will take effect in two years' time rather than 2017 as the industry has been lobbying for. Car-makers have been pressing EU governments to allow them to continue using existing types of air conditioning on new models of existing cars as they struggle to invest in "green" technologies and develop more fuel-efficient models such as hybrids and electric vehicles. But the commission insists that the refrigerant used in current air conditioning systems in most European cars has a global warming potential (GWP) far higher than the 150 laid down by the MAC law. Some estimates put the GWP of the existing refrigerant (hydrofluorocarbon R-134a) at 1,400 times higher than CO2.  link

May 2010: The EPA acts on HFCs. The EPA is taking its first big step to try and phase out the use of a major class of greenhouse gases, proposing a rule allowing alternatives to replace certain hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in home refrigerators and other appliances. The rule has been a long time coming, as hundreds of millions of refrigerators in other parts of the world already use much more benign coolants, the U.S. has been slow to follow. Although it is a significant step, other sectors make up the bulk of the problem when it comes to HFCs. Air conditioning in cars as well as home and commercial building cooling systems both in the United States and elsewhere account for much of the problem.  link

June 2010: Major climate decisions may come from an obscure round of U.N. ozone treaty talks in Geneva, which few people are following. Groundwork was laid this week for a possible decision in Uganda in November to halt the promotion of  hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs, which are man-made chemicals not found naturally in the environment and are considered greenhouse gases. The U.S., Canada and Mexico gave the talks a boost by joining the small island nations of Micronesia and Mauritius in petitioning to amend the ozone treaty known as the Montreal Protocol to drastically cut production and use of HFCs. By 2025, scientists predict HFCs could account for 20% of the world's greenhouse gases.  link               


In China - April 2013: This week China budged on HFCs. Depending on one’s perspective, it wasn’t much of a concession. China agreed, in essence, to do what it and everybody else had already agreed to do back in 2007: accelerate the phase out of a common class of ozone-eating refrigerants that double as powerful greenhouse gases. But rather than haggling over prices each step of the way, China made it simple and cut a single deal worth up to $385 million to eliminate hydrochlorofluorocarbons between now and 2030. link  

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