F-gases: The worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of

Even if you are a regular reader of this blog and keep up on climate science, you would probably be forgiven for not knowing anything about F-gases. But this group of substances is responsible for nearly a fifth of global warming pollution in our atmosphere.

They are also some of the most easily eliminated greenhouse gases we use today. But while the rest of the world has already begun phasing them out, outdated regulatory hurdles have kept them available on the North American market. There are some positive signs, however, that that is beginning to change.

Just what are F-gases? They’re a group of industrial gases that include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), commonly used in refrigeration and cooling units. The “F” in F-gas is for fluorine, the element common to them all.

F-gases were the original group of gases embraced as the “environmental alternative” to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as freon. These ozone-depleting refrigerants were phased out of international use from 1989 onwards, under the international Montreal Protocol environmental treaty.

But we’ve since learned that F-gases are not an “environmental alternative” at all. They’re responsible for some 17% of cumulative greenhouse gases currently in our atmosphere (as of 2005). Some F-gases actually have a “Global Warming Potential” (GWP) value that is thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide. (Check out this chart on the EPA’s website for more info).

It is legal to use hydrocarbon refrigerants in industrial process refrigeration in the United States. But EPA has yet to approve F-gas-free refrigerants for home appliance or automobile use. The main refrigerant alternative to HFCs and HCFCs is hydrocarbon (HC).

Greenpeace, where I work, developed the first ever hydrocarbon-based refrigeration technology nearly twenty years ago, called GreenFreeze, to prove the technology could work. Greenpeace then prototyped it and took over 70,000 orders to help persuade a manufacturer to start actually mass-producing them. Today over 300 million domestic refrigerators using the GreenFreeze technology have been purchased by consumers across Europe, Asia, and South America.

The EPA’s obsolete regulations are still keeping HC devices out of the North American market. But that is slowly changing. The agency has recognized that HFCs contribute significantly to global warming. [Here’s a great study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the greenhouse impacts of HFCs. — Ed.] Hopefully this will help ease the way for pending applications for non-HFC refrigerants through the approval process.

There are certainly plenty of companies hoping to break open the domestic market for green refrigerators and coolers. Ben & Jerry’s has rolled out some GreenFreeze-based ice cream freezers at several of its scoop shops, thanks to a “market test” allowance granted by the EPA. Pepsi and Coke have both announced they’re going to use the technology in their “climate friendly” refrigerators and vending machines.

Bosch is introducing a GreenFreeze refrigerator in Mexico, making it the first green fridge available in North America. [En Espanol: Lanzan en México tecnología verde para refrigeración, Greenpeace México, 06 Marzo 2009 – Ed.]

So, now the race is on for companies to be the first manufacturer of non-F-gas refrigerators in the United States and Canada. GE has applied to the EPA for a permit to make and sell refrigerators that use the HC isobutane as a refrigerant, hoping to roll them out by 2010.

Whoever is first to bring green refrigeration to the United States will undoubtedly make a pile of green to reward them for their efforts.

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