Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Ozone protection feels the heat

Fionnuala Walravens
Fionnuala Walravens

Former UN chief Kofi Annan described the 1989 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer as "probably the most successful environmental agreement to date". But in this week's Green Room, Fionnuala Walravens considers how the complex interactions of ozone depletion and climate change in the atmosphere are mirrored in the global political debate.

CFC-free badge (Image: BBC)
So far, the Kyoto Protocol has yet to wake up to the fact that HFC emissions are likely to continue rising considerably in the foreseeable future
The Montreal Protocol, the international agreement designed to protect the ozone layer, has reached a major crossroads.

Last year's 20th anniversary meeting of the global framework to protect the ozone layer agreed to significantly accelerate the phasing-out of ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

This was applauded worldwide as an historic achievement that could also save billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, because HCFCs are many thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

However their likely replacements, the ozone-benign hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are also potent global warming gases, often more destructive than the HCFCs they are replacing.

Despite this, HFCs are widely marketed by the refrigeration industry as environmentally friendly.

They have also been readily accepted as replacements to ozone depleting gases in many industrialised countries.

As a result, scientists have found atmospheric concentrations of HFCs are increasing at such a rate that by 2015 their emissions will be over 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2-eq).

This appears to place the Montreal Protocol directly at odds with the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, which controls emissions of global warming gases including HFCs.

Montreal vs Kyoto

To the bystander, these treaties are heading ominously down very different roads.

Warehouse full of white goods (Image: PA)
HFCs, used to replace CFCs, are an extremely potent greenhouse gas

As the Montreal Protocol speeds up the phase-out of HCFCs in developing countries, it is clear that serious intervention is needed to ensure that they do not end up in an HFC cul-de-sac.

If action isn't taken, last year's milestone agreement could actually result in increased global green house gas emissions - and certainly we will not see anything like the 12-15 billion tonnes of CO2-eq savings being widely quoted by the United Nations.

So far, the Kyoto Protocol has yet to wake up to the fact that HFC emissions are likely to continue rising considerably in the foreseeable future.

Climate meetings are dominated by the larger debates over deforestation and emissions trading, while the deliberate production of potent greenhouse gases, such as HFCs for refrigeration and air-conditioning, tend to slip under the radar.

The good news is that there are sustainable, climate-friendly, alternatives to HFCs: so-called natural refrigerants like carbon dioxide (ironically), ammonia and hydrocarbons.

Unlike HFCs, they are not man-made and importantly they do not have global warming potentials thousands of times greater than CO2.

Additionally, equipment using these gases is often more energy efficient than those using HFCs, thus delivering a double climate benefit.

Companies producing these natural refrigerants tend to be far smaller than the big chemical giants that produce HFCs and it has been a challenge selling these natural refrigerants to a market resilient to change.

However, the tide may be beginning to turn. Some large multinational corporations are turning their backs on HFCs in favour of natural alternatives.

For example, Unilever has fitted more than 200,000 hydrocarbon chiller units in Europe, Asia and South America, while the Coca Cola Company recently confirmed plans to install 100,000 CO2 bottle coolers by 2010.

It's often the accepted viewpoint that businesses try to discourage governments from adopting more stringent environmental regulations, but the actions of this group of companies clearly demonstrate that big business is sometimes ahead of government policies.

Of course, these businesses are keen to improve their public image, and right now mitigating climate change is probably the most pressing environmental issue in the minds of their consumers.

But the reality is they have cottoned on to the fact that moving away from HFCs is a relatively cheap and simple way of reducing their carbon footprint.

Pulling together

Phasing out HFCs doesn't involve changing lifestyles, it's just a case of changing the refrigerant used and ensuring that technicians dealing with them are trained to do so.

Supermarket freezer (Image: BBC)
As you walk down the cold and frozen aisles of your local supermarket, think about asking your supermarket retailer if their refrigeration is HFC-free

Furthermore, many companies have reported increased energy efficiency of natural refrigerant-based equipment, making the switch more financially attractive.

Despite the HFC problem, it must be acknowledged that the Montreal Protocol has so far proved enormously successful in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, whether intentionally designed to or not.

Ozone-depleting substances, in particular CFCs, are potent greenhouse gases. Over the past 20 years the Protocol has phased out over 95% of their production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimate 135 billion tonnes CO2-eq between 1990 and 2010, and arguably delaying global warming by up to 12 years, according to scientists.

When compared to the Kyoto Protocol's estimated 10 billion tonnes CO2-eq savings between 2008 to 2012, it's clear to see why many have lauded the Montreal Protocol as the "most effective climate treaty to date".

What makes the Montreal Protocol a successful global agreement is that it offers financial assistance towards replacement equipment and chemicals, ensuring that measures can be taken in developing countries.

What it needs to do now is ensure that the HCFC phase-out in developing countries results in the uptake of natural and climate-friendly alternatives, not HFCs.

Consumers can also play a role here by showing business and governments that we don't need HFCs.

As you walk down the cold and frozen aisles of your local supermarket (which by the way account for over half the UK's HFC emissions from refrigeration and air-conditioning), think about asking your supermarket retailer if their refrigeration is HFC-free.

But we also need leadership from the top. The common goal of both the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols is, surely, protection of the planet.

In which case, it is imperative the two start talking about a global phase-out of HFCs and stop pulling in opposite directions.

Fionnuala Walravens is part of the Environmental Investigation Agency's (EIA) global environment campaign team

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Fionnuala Walravens? Is the Montreal Protocol the most successful environmental agreement to date? Does allowing the use of HFC, a potent greenhouse gas, place the global ozone agreement at odds with the Kyoto Protocol? Or should HFCs go the same way as CFCs and be outlawed?

My father was a refridgeration design engineer for many years and took great pride in designing the most efficient systems possible. He had a soft spot for ammonia refridgeration but he attributed their demise to the customer. Leakage or failure of the system invariably led to a loss of the entire stock due to readily detectable contamination (the food smelt of ammonia and customers wouldn't buy it)No such problems with Freons or the later HFC's. He also used to bang on a bit (started in the '70s and heasn't let up since)about use of salt/brine to increase the net weights of by up to 10% (eg. paying bacon prices for salty water)and cereals, chalk and "sawdust" to bulk out processed foods such as bread, sausages, instant coffee etc. He used to say that food manufacterers could get away with selling any old rubbish as food. The irony is that we now pay premiums to buy food that actually is what it's labelled as.
Peter Tanczos, London UK

I,m a bit confused by your numbers here, maybe because your mixing "ozone depletion" and "green house gases" together. According to another article here on the beebs website human production of CO2 i 7,5 billion tonnes a year, while nature pumps 330 billion tonnes into the atmosphere every year. Nature of course sucks up about 333,75 billion tonnes again, leaving a rest of about 3,75 billion tonnes which, according to some is responsible for an increase in warming of the earth. Your numbers for CO2 equivilants seem rather excessive seen in relation to the above numbers For example " Ozone-depleting substances, in particular CFCs, are potent greenhouse gases. Over the past 20 years the Protocol has phased out over 95% of their production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimate 135 billion tonnes CO2-eq between 1990 and 2010, and arguably delaying global warming by up to 12 years, according to scientists". Thats 6,75 billion tonnes CO2-eq/year. 3 billion tonnes more CO2-eq than humans left CO2 in the atmosphere ? Maybe I misunderstood !
The Engineer, Copenhagen, DK

It's pretty interesting to note that the ozone hole has shown minimal change with the reduction of CFC's. Observations seem to showing a strong link to natural variations, particularly the sun. Still the cfc ban has helped some technical innovations. The link with MMGW theory is good. We still don't have good observational data to confirm that it is anything more than a theory. PS I am qualified to discus this, as I'm a scientist studying air quality and movements.
Mark, Coventry / UK

Seems like the atmosphere is becoming a veritable soup of legacy gasses which stand to cause problems well into the future. Sure the Montreal Protocol got the World adopting HCFC22 instead of CFC12 until something better came along but that decision led directly to an artificially high level of production of HCFC22 because getting rid of its manufacturing byproduct HFC23 became profitable. With all the companies and governments in the world it seems to me there are too many chefs in the kitchen if we want to protect the common good as far as the atmosphere is concerned.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

Dave (Lancashire), please tell us what school you go to so we can sue the English & Science teachers.
Acecamper, Wirral

Dear Dave in Lancs, you are an idiot. You have no qualifications to discuss the evidence of or not as you need to understand the subject first. Believe me, I know lawyers think they know everything - Im married to one. The biggest problem preventing workable solutions to slow climate change is transparency of information and a fair sided argument. john, London I would agree with that last statement but his first remarks illustrate the difficulty of having a rational discussion about climate change: anyone who disagrees with the green's dogma of human caused climate change is shouted down and ridiculed instead of given a fair hearing and refuted with facts and reasoned discussion.
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

As a chemist, I'm intrigued by the resurgence of ammonia and CO2 as refrigerants, and like some of your correspondents, wonder why HFC/HCFC's were ever used when these easily obtained, cheap products were freely available. I suspect that there may be corrosion issues with both gases, especially ammonia, as well as toxicity/severe irritation if ammonia is released through leakage. CO2 may be difficult to retain in a pipe system also. However, perhaps a refrigeration engineer/designer could enlighten us?
Gordon Thompson, Crich, Derbyshire U.K.

For goodness sake let's stop banging on about "saving the planet". What people really mean is saving themselves. The planet has been doing very well for itself, and it will take more than a mild infestation of humans to destroy it.
Rob Graeme, Llanfairfechan / Wales

The article has the benefit to bring HFC issue to public light, but unfortunately fails to provide a wider perspective of the problem. While it is true that HFC have high GWP, it is also true that 80 % of the emissions from refrigeration and air conditionning are related to energy consumption from the equipment rather than from direct emissions coming from releases of gases. So if a customer at a supermarket would really like to ask the manager about dramatic improvements in emission reductions, rather than asking if the equipment contains HFC he or she should ask about getting rid of the open displays of frozen food, for instance. It is surprising to see that environmental NGO sistematically fail to observe these facts. It is correct to point at HFC as very high GWP gases, but it is incorrect to focus only on this part of the problem, which in any case could be dramatically improved by tightening control over possible leaks and encouraging recovery and recycling. So the customer could also ask the supermarket manager about what are they doing to properly recover and recycle their gases: if the answer is satisfactory, the customer would know that the supermarket is using the most energy efficient and safer technology in the right way. And as Jonatan from sweden correctly guessed,if the alternatives mentioned are not widely used is simply because some are toxic, flammable or pose mechanical and energy efficiency problems. So high GWP is the only problem (not a small one, sure) of what otherwise are the safest and most effective solutions for refrigeration: industry is aware of this (I work for an HFC manufacturer) and is already working in finding low GWP alternatives which should also be encouraged.
Jorge, Geneva, Switzerland

Cripes. It's incredible how a lawyer seriously thinks he knows more than NASA, Stephen Hawking, and every University and scientific body in the western world who all agree that man is unequivocally causing climate change. People seem so preoccupied with their political positions that they are happy to see their children flung into the coming devastation. It never fails to amaze me. Surely we must all wake up to the fact that in issues of science, scientists must be respected.
Matthew, London

It would be interesting to know what part of the evidence for the potential of CO2 to cause climate change is disputed by climate sceptics. I beleive that on the "beyond reasonable doubt"(criminal) definition we can say that human produced CO2 is responsible for the measured rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere. However the effects of this are uncertain and only a civil definition ("on the balance of probabilties") is appropriate for the catastrophic change seanarios. Personally I believe that the potential for economic and ecological damage being inflicted on the next generation is so great that it is reasonable to spend 8% of GDP on efforts to mitigate this.
Nigel Williams, LEEK

Dave may well be right, the climate change argument does have a rather legalistic side to it. However I agree that he is rather weak on spelling and therefore I would be highly unlikely to employ him as a lawyer.
Trefor Jones , Resolfen

Many people I speak to are amazed by the potency of the high global warming potential HFC refrigerant gases, and that such damaging substances are in such widespread use, particularly in equipment as leaky as supermarkets and car air conditioners. Even leaders of major conservation groups who should know better have been deluded into thinking the refrigerant problem was fixed with the phase out of CFCs. Increasing consumer demand for genuinely climate friendly refrigerant solutions and improving public understanding of the harm caused by HFCs are vital prerequisites to encouraging change from recalcitrant players in the refrigeration and air conditioning industry. Here in Australia the Government has copped a lot of flak for the inadequate targets and generous compensation to polluters in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme announced this week, but they have emphatically rejected the self serving arguments of fluorocarbon promoters to be let off the hook. For all its faults, the Scheme will bring very large price increases for HFCs, and phase out new uses of HCFCs by 2010, 5 years earlier than planned, and strongly tilt the playing field in favour of natural refrigerants. Australia does not have a good record of leadership in the global climate debate, but this is a policy that sets a strong example for other countries to follow. Congratulations to the BBC for providing some coverage of this much neglected, yet most rapidly increasing cause of rising greenhouse emissions.
Brent Hoare, Katoomba, NSW, Australia

Hydrocarbons are flammable, and ammonia is toxic which is why it was phased out in the first place. Furthermore, while ammonia may be a lesser greenhouse evil than HFCs, artificially producing it in quantity is an energy intensive process which involve steam reforming of natural gas to gain hydrogen, and latter a step to react the hydrogen with nitrogen to form ammonia. These processes both emit greenhouse gases as a byproduct. CO2 in the case of the hydrogen production, and NO2 in the process that reacts the hydrogen with nitrogen to form ammonia. CO2 is an interesting possibility, but given it's low price and inert properties I have the feeling that if there were not some issues with its thermodynamic properties it would already be used in place of HFCs. After all, why go through the trouble to create HFCs if a substance as cheap and readily available as CO2 would do the job?
Jonatan, Lund, Sweden

I rarely am hopeful about American Presidents but Obama with his largely people funded campaign should not be so beholden to 'big oil',for instance.This could be the right leader at the right time,if of course the nutters don't get him!
steve johnson, whitwick, leics. England

If you want an example of what the "latest religion" can achieve, there is no finer example than DDT . A conerted effort by environmentalists and early organic activists , led to the banning of DDT . As a result , Malaria which was on the verge of being eradicated , has gone on to kill millions of people , and is still doing so. Likewise , the obsession of eco warriors , and our vote seeking politicians, will lead to millions of deaths in the developing world.
Neil, Cheshire

An interesting article, but I'm a bit puzzled as to why manufacturers ever opted for HFCs when there are alternatives that are more energy efficient than HFCs. I can't imagine it was on grounds of cost or availability if the alternatives are carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrocarbons. Also, the average consumer is going to be really confused when they find their environmentally friendly HCFC-free fridge can contribute to climate change, and that one using the most mentioned greenhouse gas - CO2 - will be more environmentally friendly. Dave from Lancs should note that no scientists expected banning CFCs to lead to the immediately closure of the hole in the ozone layer, but the hole would be far larger without the ban.
Paul A, London, UK

Dear Dave in Lancs, you are an idiot. You have no qualifications to discuss the evidence of or not as you need to understand the subject first. Believe me, I know lawyers think they know everything - Im married to one. The biggest problem preventing workable solutions to slow climate change is transparency of information and a fair sided argument.
john, London

Dave from Lancs. Yawn.... You are a lawyer who apparently can't use punctuation or spell. How does this make you more qualified? Actually, now I think about it, I might have received an email from you telling me I had inherited $15 million. Well, it was written in your style...
Alasdair, Edinburgh, UK

Kyoto is a great piece of green propaganda from the lefties apart from dodgy computer models, there isnt any evidence whatsoever of "human induced dangerous climate change" im a lawyer not a scientist, so im more qualified than any scientist to discuss the evidence, or lack there of switching to CFC free things didnt close the hole in the ozone but again a great piece of propaganda dream on greenies
dave, Lancs

This is a fascinating and thought provoking article which makes me wonder how many other similarly simple win-win solutions which President Elect Obama could make rapid and significant economic and environmental gains with. I just hope that he is prepared to spend some serious money and to inject some urgency and ambition into the world's political class and business community. If he is then who knows what might be possible!
Dr Matt Prescott, Oxford, UK

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