Better Living: The Montreal Protocol and HFCs

February 27, 2012

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was enacted in 1989, and is responsible for the gradual disappearance of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, from the atmosphere. CFCs are used as refrigerants, as solvents and as propellants in aerosols, and are known to deplete ozone in the atmosphere. The Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of CFCs, is described as Science Daily as “the most successful international environmental agreement to date.” Since CFCs are also greenhouse gases, the phaseout will have the side benefit of reducing the impact of climate change.

Since CFCs are no longer used for aerosols or refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, have been increasingly in use. HFCs, unfortunately, are also greenhouse gases, and are long-lived in the environment. According to Science Daily, HFC-134a is frequently used in automobile air conditioning units and is 1430 times more active than carbon dioxide.

In a study published in the latest issue of “Science,” researchers investigated the climate effects of the Montreal Protocol and found that it had prevented 10 billion tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, Velders, Riemann and the other authors of the study found that the release of HFCs may negate the positive impact of the Montreal protocol. Saturated HFCs, which can survive for up to 50 years in the atmosphere, present a particular risk. According to researcher Reimann, “Long-lived HFCs should no longer be used in [the quantities they are now].” The scientists recommended that the Montreal protocol be modified to cover the use of HFCs, as well.

In this case, the future is promising. According to Riemann, there are alternatives available, climate neutral hydrocarbons which are already being used in Switzerland. The science and technology is there for HFCs to be phased out as well as CFCs, but will the policy catch up?

Graphic Credit: HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer, UNEP, 2011)

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