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Drawing down the moon
How can something that is 2% of global emissions present such a big opportunity?
Like a few of you here, Project Drawdown played a significant part in bringing the issue of refrigerants to the front of mind.
While the environmental concerns of refrigerants had been floating around in the back of people’s minds since the ozone crisis of the 90’s, it was the Drawdown work released in 2017 that put some hard numbers around the problem. And sticking it atop the eighty or so climate solutions certainly helped raise the profile.
I sense however, that for many in the public, it was hard to wrap their heads around refrigerants as a climate ‘solution’. Solar PV, forest protection, cutting food waste and social interventions such as education were topics that regular folks could broadly understand. Chemicals used in refrigeration cycles – well not so much. But we persist.
One of the reasons for looping back to Drawdown today, is that they’ve recently released their new Drawdown Roadmap series which is designed to provide specific strategies across different sectors, and most importantly across time. I’d urge you to check out the video explainer series here.
Refrigerants are still prominent as a Drawdown solution, so I wanted to dive into a point that comes up now and again in my conversations. One that can lead to a little confusion.
Piece of Pie
When you look at the breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions, most are familiar by now that carbon dioxide is not the only player. It is significant, and must be tackled urgently given how long it resides in the atmosphere (parts will carry on for centuries and millenia).
Methane and N2O are also critically important to address. However as we’re focused on refrigerants here, we’ll look a little deeper into the 2% slice labelled ‘f-gases’. Fluorinated greenhouse gases, of which refrigerants make up the majority.
Two percent. It doesn’t necessarily get the alarm bells ringing. In some regions that number may be a little higher, especially for countries with electrical grids that are starting to decarbonise. Still you might be thinking that number is immaterial in the overall scheme of things (although global shipping and aviation tend to be around that figure also).
Then you might read on to investigate the table of Drawdown Solutions and think; hang on a sec.
In the first pie chart, f-gases (refrigerants) are only 2% of emissions. Yet as a climate solution they are up near the top, and the combined solutions of refrigerant management plus alternative refrigerants, are of similar impact to large-scale PV deployment or tropical reforestation. How does that work you might ask.
It’s all to do with the ‘banks’ (not the finance ones). That is, all the refrigerant gas that is already out there in circulation, and likely to be banked in future. The gases housed inside air-conditioners, heat-pumps, refrigerators, foams and chemical stockpiles. Something close to 5 Billion pieces of equipment.
In short the size of the ‘problem’ is defined by how much refrigerant is out there, how much it is going to grow over the coming decades and how much of it leaks during operation and disposal.
I did a little explainer on this some time back using the Bathtub analogy. You can check it out here.
While the exact amount of refrigerant in circulation is not exactly known, current estimates put it somewhere between 10-15 Gt (Gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent today.
Some of this bank leaks into the atmosphere each year, which forms the 2% number in our pie chart above (roughly 1 Gt per year). But at the same time we keep adding more fluorinated refrigerants. Some to cover growth in equipment use, and some to top-up the leaks. Most of the equipment has useful lifespans of fifteen plus years, locking the refrigerant use in place. Repeat this for a few decades and you start to see why refrigerants present such a huge opportunity.
Aside from the existing bank that we have to deal with, and the leaks over the next thirty years (at least), the bank is also growing. With current trends we may be looking at >3 Gt emissions per year in 2050 (there is an in-depth paper here for those interested).
Predicting the exact size of the banks in the coming decades is of course tricky, given much of it is related to policy and regulation. In pretty much all predictions however, the use of refrigeration and cooling is going to increase substantially. And so is the use of refrigerants.
And while the total amount of refrigerant in circulation may grow, the types of refrigerants used may change, with lower-GWP variants being used. This makes the modelling tricky but it is also what creates one of the big opportunities. Switching to non-fluorinated (natural) refrigerants is one of the best ways to turn off the taps.
We have the solutions to stop the banks growing and leaking. What we are still missing however is structures to clean up what’s already out there.
I’ll go into this in more detail in upcoming editions.
Of course there are many things that need climate attention, aside refrigerants. That’s before we even get to the other planetary boundaries and associated challenges. While it can often feel overwhelming, when you look at what is needed, it is also clear that there are abundant solutions ready to go.
Right, that’s all for this week and till next time,
p.s. I’ve tried to simplify a complex topic here so there are some details I had to leave out. One curious one is that under Paris reporting only HFC refrigerants (along with some other f-gases – see below) are included. The ozone depleting refrigerants (CFCs, HCFCs) are not included as they are covered by the Montreal protocol (even though they are also climate warming). So if you add these into the pie chart the actual emissions slice from f-gases is higher again...
p.p.s. the title track from last edition – Drop the Pressure – comes from Mylo. I recall this being launched at volume on a (rare) sunny day in London while at Notting Hill Carnival circa 2004.
While I enjoy writing this Newsletter I also need to keep the lights on. If you know any companies or organisations that need support with managing and reducing emissions from refrigerants, feel free to reach out to me. You can reply on the email or check out Veridien RM for more information on where I can help. Merci :)
Fixed stuff here for newcomers
There is lots of news every week from the cooling industry and plenty of newsletters that cover it well. The intention is to keep this newsletter focused on the most prominent f-gases (fluorinated greenhouse gases), the most common of which are refrigerants and importantly their environmental impact. That’s the lane I’ve chosen - I’ll do my best to stick to it.
Below are the seven formal greenhouse gases that countries and companies should track, report and hopefully reduce.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6)
Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
Plus the still circulating, ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and the ‘new-generation’ hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).
Hopefully you can spot the pattern.
Emissions from f-gases and refrigerants have been the fastest growing greenhouse gases over the past decade (more than CO2 and methane - check out IPCC WG3 summary for policy makers). They are also classed as super pollutants given their outsized global warming and other environmental impacts.
Some useful permalinks
The scale of the climate challenge can often feel daunting. This piece helps me take a step back and understand where we need to focus first - recommend a read.
There are plenty of technology solutions available to address the cooling and refrigerant challenge. You can find many of them here
Beware when the same entities who have contributed to the current f-gas problem propose you new solutions… This is a good place to get up to speed.