It’s easy to forget, with global attention focused on reducing CO2 emissions, that carbon is not the only gas that’s turning up the heat for our planet’s atmosphere. And although most people are aware of the damaging effects of methane, caused by coal mining, garbage dumps and flatulent cows, there’s a little known player that threatens to up its stake in the global warming line up.
HFCs (hydroflourocarbons) are super greenhouse gases that are up to several thousand times more potent than CO2. Although HFCs don’t remain in the atmosphere for as long as CO2, they are able to trap much more heat in the short to medium term. Used as a replacement for ozone depleting substances (CFCs and HCFCs) in the growing refrigeration and air conditioning sector, at their current rate of growth, HFCs could represent the equivalent of a third of the world’s total carbon emissions by 2050.
For more than two decades, Scientists and Greenpeace campaigners have been working to phase out these harmful gases. The first breakthrough came in 1992, when Greenpeace developed and successfully commercialized non-polluting 'Greenfreeze' hydrocarbon technology for domestic refrigeration. More recently, Greenpeace has also been campaigning for the real effect of the climate impact of HFCs to be measured over 20 years (they have a life cycle of 21 years), rather than the current 100 year calculation. This would give us a much clearer picture of their damaging effects in the short term, and highlight the sense of urgency to speed up action to deal with these super greenhouse gases.
But phasing out these harmful gases in an industry dominated by chemical monopolies is a long haul, and the growing refrigeration markets in developing countries such as India and China are now at a crossroads in the choice between HFCs or its climate friendly alternatives.
So what does the future hold for reducing HFCs? Expanding existing legislation to include these harmful gases could see HFCs phased out in much the same way as their ozone polluting predeccessors CFCs. The campaign was given a political boost when the EU parliament recently adopted a motion to reduce the use of HFC gases. The European Commission is currently reviewing the existing HRC gases regulation and we will see the results in 2012. And this month, on the 2011 International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, the UN Secretary General urged politicians and industry to ‘leapfrog’ the use of HFCs whenever possible. We now need to build political will and momentum, to ensure those aspirations isn’t just hot air.
To find out more about our work and the impact of HFCs, read our report: "HFCs: a growing threat to the climate."
Caroline is Climate Change Communications Manager at Greenpeace International