Refrigerants are commonly used in many things you own and whilst you are surely aware of those in your fridges and freezers, their use is becoming more widespread. With nearly all cars now containing air conditioning and household’s heat pump/air conditioning usage accelerating, the quantities in circulation are set to grow greatly. This is important because the type of refrigerant used makes a huge difference in terms of the environmental damage a potential leakage can have. It is true that the safe management and disposal of refrigerant by manufacturers is highly legislated. Most people, however, will have experienced having their car’s air conditioning recharged so clearly there is some leakage requiring that recharging gas be produced and stored by third parties. This also ignores the illegal disposal of manufacturers’ goods and of the recharging gas. A somewhat remote but potent example of this was the discovery of a small shed in Accra, Ghana in 2019 that held about 15,000 kg of unused CFCs in small propane like canisters, already illegal by that time. If the gas had been released to the air the CFCs would have had the same effect as the carbon dioxide released from burning 16 million gallons of petrol. Indeed, a coalition of scientists and experts at Project Drawdown, a not-for-profit organisation concerned with climate change, ranked management of refrigerants as the highest impact climate change solution. Project Drawdown estimated that disposing properly of existing (CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs) refrigerants rather than letting them leak into the air would be equivalent to preventing 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, which is more than 17-years-worth of US carbon dioxide emissions.
Reading the above it is easy to conclude that the problem is known and being dealt with, but as consumers we can do our best to make sure it does not recur. Many of the goods you can still purchase will include refrigerant with 1000s of times more impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. Whilst this has largely been fixed in terms of car air conditioning by making it illegal from 2017 to use refrigerants with a GWP (global warming potential) of more than 150 (the GWP of carbon dioxide being 1) it has not been fixed in other appliances where commonly refrigerant GWP values are in the 1000s. Luckily, there is a solution as natural refrigerants types such as propane, ammonia and, believe it or not, carbon dioxide all have GWP of under 5. These refrigerants have been known about for decades, are plentiful and must be built into systems where they cannot be replaced by HFCs etc. Some, although few, manufacturers have started to use these refrigerants and results are good with efficiencies often higher than the HFC (a more potentially damaging refrigerant) systems they replace. There are some engineering challenges but even some of the conservative European car industry is seriously looking at carbon dioxide in their air conditioners.
As a consumer you have the choice to buy goods that use natural refrigerants and push manufacturers in that direction. This will inevitably result in a trend that means no more worrying about potential leakages of highly damaging gas in the future.