Global warming potential: Understanding the refrigerant impact
Global warming potentials and boosting your carbon literacy
It’s time to enhance your carbon literacy, as evolving regulations are transforming the decision-making process for refrigerant choices across your entire team — and as the HVAC/R industry evolves under new regulations and scrutiny, it’s crucial to recognize the environmental impact of refrigerants and make informed decisions.
Adapting to current and future needs requires a departure from business as usual. By understanding the global temperature potential and warming potentials, you’ll be better equipped to choose environmentally responsible refrigerants, meet the rapidly evolving patchwork of regulations and adopt sustainable practices for your cooling strategy.
This will be a long post, so before we get started with it, let’s just outline some of the core audiences that might find this important:
- Beginners: Limited understanding of GWP, GWP values, carbon dioxide, assessment reports, etc. Looking for more knowledge.
- Seasoned professionals: Looking for more advanced knowledge.
- High-ranking but unaware of the impact: These people need solutions and insights.
Alright, now let’s get rolling.
Let’s first define GWP and GWP values a bit
The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure used to compare the warming impact of different greenhouse gases (GHGs) on the Earth’s climate. GWP allows for a common scale by expressing the warming impact of a specific gas relative to the warming impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a certain time horizon, typically 100 years.
The GWP of CO2 is set at 1, and the GWP of other gases is calculated in relation to this. There is also a different way to measure GWP impact, and its based on a 20 year benchmark.
20-year Global Warming Potential (GWP): is a metric used to compare the climate impact of various greenhouse gases over a 20-year timeframe, relative to the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2). The GWP of a greenhouse gas is a measure of how much heat the gas traps in the atmosphere over time period of 20 years compared to CO2.
R-11 (Trichlorofluoromethane or CFC-11) is a CFC — considered a first-generation refrigerant, has an atmospheric life of 45-90 years.
R-22 (Chlorodifluoromethane or HCFC-22) is an HCFC — a second-generation refrigerant, has an atmospheric life of 12 years.
R-134a (Tetrafluoroethene or HFC-134a): R-134a and HFC is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant with no ozone depletion potential. It has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 13-14 years.
None of these refrigerants have atmospheric lifetimes of 100 years. Using the 20-year GWP instead of the 100-year GWP provides a more accurate representation of their short-term climate impact, particularly for substances like refrigerants that have shorter lifetimes in the atmosphere.
100-year Global Warming Potential (GWP): is a metric used to compare the climate impact of various greenhouse gases over a 100-year timeframe, relative to the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2). The GWP of a greenhouse gas is a measure of how much heat the gas traps in the atmosphere over 100 years compared to CO2. The 100-year GWP factor is the most commonly used time horizon for comparing greenhouse gases, as it provides a convenient balance between short-term and long-term climate impacts. This factor is widely adopted by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for regulatory and policy-making purposes.
The IPCC publishes periodic reports, known as Assessment Reports (AR-4, AR5, AR6, you get the idea) every seven or so years, that contain the most up-to-date scientific information on climate change, including the GWP of various greenhouse gases. These reports are compiled by a group of international climate experts and are a key source of information for policymakers and scientists alike.
When it comes to refrigerants, their GWP is of particular concern, as refrigerants are potent greenhouse gases. Some refrigerants, like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have much higher GWPs than CO2, making them more harmful to the environment when released. The EPA and other regulatory bodies use the 100-year GWP factor to determine which refrigerants are more harmful to the environment and regulate their use accordingly. This helps to encourage the use of refrigerants with lower GWP values and drive innovation in the development of more environmentally friendly alternatives.
A little bit of history around GWP and more
Global policy did not include GWP in the refrigerant decision-making process during the last 20 years because the focus at the time was primarily on addressing ozone depletion, rather than climate change. Regulations and policies were primarily aimed at phasing out ozone-depleting substances (ODS), such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, aka R-12) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs, aka R-22 and R-123), which were major contributors to ozone depletion.
At that time, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were seen as a suitable alternative to ODS because of they did not have any Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP).
It was not until later — as awareness of climate change and the environmental impact of refrigerants grew — that the focus shifted towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of environmentally responsible refrigerants with lower GWP. As a result, GWP has now become a critical metric in the HVAC/R industry for decision-making, driving the transition towards more sustainable refrigerant alternatives.
Historically, refrigerant selection was predominantly influenced by price and performance, but GWP has emerged as an equally critical factor in the decision-making process.
The HVAC/R industry can be shortsighted at times, often focusing on one priority at the expense of others. While the focus on phasing out ozone-depleting substances was critical in the 90’s, the slow adoption of awareness regarding the environmental impact of refrigerants and their high GWP was a missed
The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1987, aimed to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which were commonly used as refrigerants in HVAC/R systems. This created a subsequent focus on ODP, mentioned above, which led to the development and adoption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as an alternative to CFCs and HCFCs. HFCs have negligible ODP, making them a seemingly suitable choice for reducing ozone layer damage.
As early as 1997, the Kyoto Protocol recognized that many HFCs have a high Global Warming Potential (GWP), contributing significantly to climate change; these were referred to as the “basket of gasses.” As awareness of climate change and its impacts grew, the focus shifted towards addressing both ozone depletion and global warming, leading to the introduction of GWP as an important metric for decision-making in the HVAC/R industry.
The issue became so important that about eight years ago, the US and several other nations gathered in Kigali, Rwanda to negotiate an appropriate means to set policy related to these gasses for the future. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 2016, expanded the scope of the original treaty to include the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) due to their high Global Warming Potential (GWP).
This amendment signifies a shift in focus from solely addressing ozone depletion to also considering the impact of refrigerants on climate change.
Under the Kigali Amendment, countries have agreed to gradually reduce the production and consumption of HFCs, with different phase-down schedules for developed and developing nations. The primary goal of the amendment is to achieve an 80-85% reduction in HFC consumption by 2047, which is projected to prevent up to 0.4°C of global warming by the end of the century.
The Kigali Amendment spurred some business innovation (plus: AIM Act, assessment report, and more)
The adoption of the Kigali Amendment has spurred the development and adoption of new, environmentally-friendly refrigerants with lower GWP, led by manufacturers in the US like Chemours and Honeywell. These alternatives, including hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and natural refrigerants (like ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons) have gained increasing attention and acceptance in the HVAC/R industry.
The Kigali Amendment influenced the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act by providing a framework for phasing down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the United States. The AIM Act, signed into law in December 2020, aligns with the goals of the Kigali Amendment to reduce the use of high-GWP HFCs and promote the development and adoption of more environmentally friendly alternatives.
The AIM Act grants the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate HFCs and implement a phase-down plan in the United States, in line with the Kigali Amendment’s objectives. Specifically, the AIM Act requires the EPA to:
- Establish an allowance system to cap and phase down HFC production and consumption, targeting an 85% reduction over a 15-year period.
- Regulate HFC use in specific sectors, considering factors like the availability of alternatives, the environmental and economic benefits of alternatives, and the overall impact on the market.
- Provide rules related to maintenance practices and requirements for recovery, recycling, and reclamation of HFCs to minimize emissions. This part is more targeted to Phase 3, which has not been launched yet. We’re still very much in a Phase 2 world with the AIM Act.
By following the Kigali Amendment’s framework, the AIM Act supports global efforts to mitigate climate change while promoting innovation and competitiveness in the U.S. HVAC/R industry.
The AIM Act’s passage is expected to create new job opportunities, drive research and development in low-GWP refrigerants, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the United States’ commitment to addressing climate change.
On September 21, 2022, the U.S. Senate, with strong bipartisan support, gave advice and consent to ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The United States joined 137 other countries that had already ratified the Kigali Amendment.
The role of refrigerants in GWP values, carbon dioxide discussions, and more
In addition to the AIM Act, refrigerants have come under increased scrutiny due to their classification as fugitive emissions, which are unintentional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that occur during the production, processing, transmission, storage, and use of various substances, including refrigerants in HVAC/R systems.
Fugitive emissions from refrigerants contribute to climate change and are now being incorporated into ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) reporting as part of Scope 1 emissions. Scope 1 emissions refer to direct greenhouse gas emissions that occur from sources owned or controlled by a company or organization. Including refrigerants in Scope 1 emissions, reporting reflects a growing recognition of their environmental impact and the need for organizations to monitor, manage, and minimize these emissions.
As ESG reporting becomes more prevalent, companies are increasingly expected to address and reduce their Scope 1 emissions — including those resulting from refrigerants. This has led to greater demand for low-GWP refrigerants and the implementation of best practices in refrigerant management, such as leak detection, regular maintenance, and proper refrigerant disposal.
Some other terms you’ll hear in this space, too:
- Carbon dioxide equivalent
- Nitrous oxide
- Increased greenhouse gas concentrations
- IPCC second assessment report
- Methane emissions
- Trapping heat
- Panel on climate change
- Fossil fuels
- United Nations framework convention
- High GWP gases
- Climate system
- Atmospheric concentrations
Etc, etc. All of it is geared towards making us a society that moves forward with environmental purpose, for our grandchildren and beyond.
“GWP and ODP have become essential metrics in the HVAC/R industry, guiding decisions for refrigerants, which account for over 600 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. This dual-focus approach fosters informed choices and promotes environmentally responsible technologies.”
Could solving global warming start with refrigerants? Somewhat, yes.
HVAC/R system owners, service professionals, engineers, architects, compliance team members, and sustainability reporting experts realize that it is becoming increasingly important to understand the GWP of the refrigerant used in your system due to several factors:
- Environmental considerations: High GWP refrigerants contribute to climate change by trapping more heat in the atmosphere. By using low GWP refrigerants, you can minimize your system’s environmental impact and promote sustainability.
- Compliance with regulations: Many countries and regions are phasing out high-GWP refrigerants and promoting eco-friendly alternatives. Ensuring your HVAC/R system uses low-GWP refrigerants will help you comply with these regulations and avoid penalties or equipment replacement costs.
- Improved energy efficiency: Some low-GWP refrigerants offer better energy efficiency, which can lead to lower energy consumption and reduced operating expenses for your HVAC/R system, ultimately saving you money.
- Enhanced brand image: For business owners, adopting low-GWP refrigerants demonstrates a commitment to environmental responsibility, which can improve your company’s reputation and attract eco-conscious customers.
- Future readiness: By transitioning to low-GWP refrigerants, you can prepare your HVAC/R system for upcoming regulatory changes and industry trends, minimizing disruptions to your operations and reducing costs associated with retrofitting or replacing equipment in the future.
Calculating, tracking, and managing the GWP of refrigerants can be complicated, since refrigerants are broadly used, poorly tracked, often managed by operations people focused on other priorities; thus, asset data is poorly developed.
Additionally, regulations around the use and disposal of refrigerants can vary by region, making compliance with environmental standards challenging. Therefore, it is important for organizations to prioritize effective refrigerant management practices and dedicate appropriate resources to ensure compliance and minimize environmental impact.
Trakref can help organizations better manage their refrigerant usage and minimize environmental impact through real-time data, compliance management, analytics, and education.
Refrigerants do not last very long in the atmosphere. However, while they are present, they have a very significant impact. We’ve talked a bit so far about Phase II of the AIM Act (where we are presently with said bill), and Phase II is definitely focused on low-GWP refrigerants, understanding of global warming potentials, and making sure the Panel on Climate Change concepts are being followed.
The prioritization of low-GWP, 20-year GWP value for refrigerants — and the hopeful decline in GHG emissions
New York and other states have started using the 20-year GWP when reporting on refrigerants, as it provides a more relevant and accurate measure of the short-term climate impact of these substances. This approach allows for better evaluation and decision-making related to refrigerant management, regulation, and mitigation.
Using the 20-year GWP for refrigerants can help drive the adoption of more environmentally friendly alternatives, as it emphasizes the near-term benefits of reducing the emissions of these potent greenhouse gases.
In the context of climate change, it is critical to reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as refrigerants, in addition to long-lived greenhouse gases like CO2. Focusing on SLCPs can provide more immediate climate benefits and help slow down the rate of global warming.
By using the 20-year GWP, New York and other states can:
- Better assess the short-term climate impact of various refrigerants and prioritize the phase-down of those with the highest GWPs.
- Encourage the development and adoption of alternative refrigerants with lower GWPs and shorter atmospheric lifetimes.
- Set more effective policies, regulations, and incentives to reduce refrigerant emissions, promote proper management, and minimize leaks and losses from existing systems.
The 20-year GWP for reporting on refrigerants allows states to take a more proactive and targeted approach to mitigating the climate impact of these substances.
This should also be noted around GHG emissions and atmospheric concentrations: in addition to the higher impact on the carbon balance sheet, there is still discussion about the carbon credits and or the Social Cost of Carbon, which have yet to be worked out. If the goal of new policies is to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable cooling technologies and contribute to broader efforts to address climate change, then the 20-year timeline will be used more frequently.
Understanding GWP value and GWP factors
The choice of time horizon is important because different greenhouse gases have different lifetimes in the atmosphere and varying effects on the climate system. The time horizon helps to capture these differences and assess the relative warming impacts of various gases.
“Considering both 100-year and 20-year GWP values for refrigerants is key to informed decision-making in maintenance and investment, enabling us to weigh short-term climate impacts against long-term environmental responsibility and drive innovation in cooling technologies.”
For refrigerants, the choice between the 100-year and 20-year GWP can influence the perceived environmental impact of a specific refrigerant. Some refrigerants may have high GWPs in both the 20-year and 100-year time horizons, while others may have a high GWP in the 20-year horizon but a significantly lower GWP in the 100-year horizon. This difference in GWP values affects how policymakers and industry stakeholders prioritize the phase-out or reduction of certain refrigerants.
Carbon Costs and the Impact on measuring performance
The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) is an economic metric that represents the estimated monetary cost of the damages associated with an additional metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or the benefits of avoiding such emissions. Presently the US government applies a cost of $51 per ton.
The $51 per ton Social Cost of Carbon applied on all government balance sheets, represents a tangible reminder that each ton of CO2 emitted has real consequences, urging us to take immediate and responsible action for a sustainable future.
The SCC provides a way to quantify the long-term economic consequences of greenhouse gas emissions and helps policymakers, businesses, and individuals make more informed decisions about projects, policies, and investments that affect the environment.
Applying the Social Cost of Carbon to real-life decisions involves considering the long-term environmental and societal impacts of a particular solution, in addition to the immediate costs and benefits. Here are some ways the SCC can be applied to decision-making:
- Government policies and regulations: Policymakers can use the SCC to evaluate the costs and benefits of different climate-related policies and regulations. By incorporating the SCC into their analysis, they can prioritize policies that result in the greatest net benefits for society, considering both the economic and environmental impacts.
- Infrastructure projects: When planning infrastructure projects, governments and businesses can incorporate the SCC into their cost-benefit analyses. This helps to ensure that long-term climate impacts are considered when making decisions about which projects to pursue and which technologies to use.
- Corporate decision-making: Companies can use the SCC to assess the environmental impact of their operations, products, and services. By incorporating the SCC you’re your decision-making processes, businesses can identify opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint, invest in sustainable technologies, and manage climate-related risks.
- Carbon pricing and market-based mechanisms: The SCC can inform the design of carbon pricing policies, such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems. By setting a price on carbon that reflects its social cost, these policies can incentivize businesses and individuals to reduce their emissions and invest in low-carbon solutions.
The Social Cost of Carbon is being used to determine the success and/or failure of the expected changes in the marketplace and there is a valuable tool for incorporating the long-term economic and environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emissions into real-life decision-making.
By considering the SCC in decisions related to policies, projects, investments, and personal choices, governments, businesses, and individuals can align their performance expectations and better understand the
Trakref is a comprehensive refrigerant management software solution that can help organizations navigate the market’s adoption of carbon competency and literacy in refrigerant management. By leveraging Trakref’s features and capabilities, companies can stay ahead of the curve and contribute to a more resilient and responsible industry.
How do we embrace carbon competency, then?
As the concept of carbon competency and literacy gains traction in refrigerant management, the markets are likely to experience several noteworthy changes:
- Demand for low-GWP refrigerants (and more training): The increasing emphasis on carbon literacy will drive the demand for low-GWP refrigerants, pushing manufacturers to innovate and develop more sustainable alternatives.
- Market differentiation: Companies that successfully incorporate carbon literacy into their decision-making processes and adopt environmentally responsible practices will have a competitive edge, positioning themselves as leaders in sustainability.
- Growth of sustainable cooling technologies: With a more profound understanding of the environmental implications of refrigerants, the market will likely see an uptick in the development and adoption of energy-efficient and sustainable cooling solutions.
- Regulatory changes: The growing importance of carbon literacy and GWP considerations could lead to stricter regulations and policies governing refrigerant use, pushing the industry to adapt and comply with new environmental standards.
- Investor preferences: Environmentally conscious investors may be more inclined to invest in companies that demonstrate a commitment to carbon literacy and responsible refrigerant management, driving capital towards sustainable businesses.
- Enhanced corporate reputation: Companies that embrace carbon literacy and take action to reduce their environmental footprint will likely see improved reputations, attracting customers and stakeholders who value sustainability.
The market’s adoption of carbon competency and literacy in refrigerant management will likely spur innovation, drive the growth of sustainable technologies, and push companies to prioritize environmental stewardship, resulting in a more resilient and responsible industry.
Managing and developing ESG and EHS content for Trakref since early 2023.