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Refrigerants: Are they missing from your carbon footprint?

Refrigerants occur throughout your business and supply chain

Refrigerants, also known as cooling gases, or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are the gases that help cool things down – they’re used in things like:

  • Appliances you find in the office like air conditioners and fridges

  • Cooling containers used for carrying perishable goods like food

  • Air conditioning systems on vehicles like trains, cars, aeroplanes, and ships

  • Commercial refrigeration systems like those in big retailers

  • Industrial cooling systems in office buildings or warehouses

Refrigerants are a big deal for your carbon footprint and the climate

Refrigerants matter because they are actually very powerful warming gases per kg – much higher than carbon dioxide.

There are a huge number of different refrigerants – hundreds in fact. One example is HFC-134a, which creates 1,430kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) for every kg of gas that escapes. In other words, had carbon dioxide been used for cooling purposes instead of HFC-134a, the effective “carbon footprint” would have been 1430 times less (quick reminder that carbon footprint is a commonly used term but actually refers to all gases with global warming potential.) On a global level, by some estimates refrigerants will contribute to a rise in global temperatures of 0.4 degrees Celsius this century.

The environmental impact of refrigerants is only set to increase

It probably won’t surprise you after the increasing intensity of heatwaves in recent years, but the impact from refrigerants is projected to grow in the future. Research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that from 2010–2050, there is predicted to be a 4.5 times increase in air conditioning for non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, and 1.3 times increase for OECD countries. This is despite the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. As a detour - the Montreal Protocol was an example of successful environmental policy, as it halted the rapid depletion of the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting gases.

However in doing so many of these were replaced with HFCs, or refrigerants. The Kigali Amendment was brought in to phase these out.  However, while nearly 130 states and the EU have ratified this, and policy makers have been discussing it for a long time, very few people talk about it in the public sphere and it’s unclear about its impact.

Action to reduce refrigerant impact is challenging

Reducing refrigerant impact across the board has proved to be challenging because appliances are distributed and regulations tend to be weak.

Project Drawdown is a solution that replaces conventional refrigerant management practices, and is one of the most effective solutions for climate change abatement. Project Drawdown defines refrigerant management as controlling leakages of refrigerants from existing appliances through better management practices and recovery, recycling, and destruction of refrigerants at the end of life. It also includes the use of alternative refrigerants with significantly lower global warming potential, including ammonia, carbon dioxide, propane and isobutane.

What can you do to reduce your refrigerant footprint?

Here are a few tips to reduce the contribution of refrigerants to your carbon footprint at installation, in use and at disposal of the machines or vehicles that contain them:

  • Choose high quality suppliers, installers and recovery at machine or vehicle end of life.

  • When sourcing or replacing appliances, choose those with the lowest expected “leakage” and highest efficiency - talk to your supplier about these choices if you are unsure.

  • Investigate replacing the type of refrigerant in use with one with lower global warming potential, or a natural refrigerant (with some suggestions here from the European Commission).

  • Reduce usage!  Not only does this help the planet, but also lowers costs too.  How can you engage employees, modify behaviour or reconfigure buildings and vehicles to reduce the amount of cooling needed?

Have you missed refrigerants from your footprint? Get in touch with our expert team to find out how we can help you with your carbon accounting.


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