Sometimes when you fix one problem you worsen another. This appears to be what is happening with our use of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as an ‘ozone-friendly’ replacement for Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrofluorochlorocarbons (HCFCs) in refrigerators and air conditioning units. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer which went into effect in 1989, banned the use in developed nations of chemicals (including CFCs and HCFCs) which destroy ozone in the higher atmosphere. While the banned chemicals are also greenhouse gas causing, unfortunately the replacement chemicals, HFCs, are powerful greenhouse gases as well which will worsen our climate change problems.
A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) stated “While these ‘replacement for replacement’ chemicals cause near zero damage to the ozone layer, they are powerful greenhouse gases in their own right.” The report continued by saying “HFCs, many more times potent than CO2 , could account for up to 20% of emissions (by 2050) and hamper efforts to curb climate change.” This means that while we are fixing ozone depletion we are doing it with chemicals which contribute to global warming.
Unfortunately, our world situation is worsening because we are using increasing amounts of banned ozone depleting chemicals in older air conditioners and the greenhouse gas causing chemicals in newer air conditioners,. The demand for air conditioning and refrigerators is continuing its unrestrained growth as the developing countries get wealthier and the weather gets hotter. Growth of wealth in countries such as India and China will continue to drive demand for products which essentially worsen climate change.
In a related area, the Montreal Protocol gave exemptions to developing nations allowing them to continue using CFCs and HCFCs, the ozone depleting chemicals banned in the developed world. There are places where second hand appliances, like used air conditioners, wind up and are refurbished and sold back into in this case, the African economy. One such place is Ghana. Ghana’s energy commission recently reported that over 2 million used, offending fridges have been imported into Ghana from primarily the European Union.
While Ghana banned the import of used air conditioners in 2008, the government extended the deadline until 2013 because of the impacts on local refurbishing businesses which have become the destination for used machines of many kinds. This includes “e-waste” appliances like used TVs, computers, etc. which contain, in many cases, toxic pollutants. The government is finally imposing its import ban on used refrigerators citing their higher than normal use of electricity.
There are other alternatives that could be used in air conditioning and refrigeration but we now have a worldwide infrastructure producing greenhouse gas generating appliances. Unfortunately, the remedies fall under the category of climate change and we have seen how difficult it is to mobilize the world to act. We can only hope this is added to the list of areas needing attention in the climate change “Big Deal” that is scheduled to be negotiated in 2015.
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