The siluette of a torso and a hand reaching for a refrigerator handle, in black against a backdrop of blue light shining through a glass wall.

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This text describes the fast-growing refrigeration industry from an environmental point of view and argues for phasing out refrigerators with gases that contribute to global warming. The target audience is politicians and media as well as the public.

Refrigeration is growing fast worldwide due to better economy, and the main applications are air-conditioning and food logistics. This poses challenges since the international agreements for phasing out the strong refrigerant gases, which contribute to global warming, are not currently being fulfilled.

 

The greenhouse effect, or the decreased heat losses of the planet, depends on the atmospheric gases reducing their heat radiation from the planet. A large group of people – both decision-makers and media – have paid attention to this climate question, and goals have been set for society to become fossil-free. These goals are an important step towards becoming fossil-free, but there are other gases that have more impact on the global warming potential than the primary greenhouse gases  – for example HFC or F-gases. These gases have a large impact on global warming potential and are currently replacing the ozone-depleting refrigerants in cooling apparatuses as well as for air conditioning units, refrigerators and freezers.

 

A project based in the US has quantitatively investigated what measures can be taken to reduce climate change within the next 30 years. This project shows that the phase-out of climate impacting HFC refrigerants is of highest importance. In order to succeed in achieving the set climate goals, the debate can not only be restricted to a discussion of climate impact of the fossil fuels. In order to realise the phase-out quicker, politicians, journalists and wider society need to be aware of the importance of reducing the use of HFC refrigerants.

 

Abbreviations

UNEP United Nations Environmental Program
IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
WMO World Metrological Organization
HFC Hydrofluorocarbon

Within UNEP, IPCC and WMO it is considered that phasing out the HFC refrigerants could help make it possible to avoid 0.5°C temperature rise in a 2°C context. This number is probably underestimated, as WMO data is based on a 7% annual measured increase of HFC in the atmosphere until 2018. A drastic increase in use of cooling application can be expected in low and middle-income countries, as the middle class increases in eg. China, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. This could lead to a much greater increase in HFC.

 

Both IPCC and project Drawdown only take into account the direct emission of HFC refrigerants, which comes from leakage. In a cooling apparatus there are also indirect emissions which come from the electricity production used for operating the cooling system. Emissions from leaking refrigerants that directly affect the climate are 600-3800 times worse than CO2 and the indirect emissions from non-sustainable production of electricity. According to IIR the indirect emissions comprise twice the amount of the direct emissions. Project Drawdown has included electricity in other measures, such as coal-fired power plants.

 

Impact Measure

Total reduction of

CO2 equivalents

[GIGATON leakage]

1 Refrigerant Management 89.74
2 Wind Turbines (Onshore) 84.60
3 Reduced Food Waste 70.53
4 Plant-Rich Diet 66.11
5 Tropical Forests 61.23
6 Educating Girls 51.48
7 Family Planning 51.48
8 Solar Farms 36.90
9 Silvopasture 31.19
10 Rooftop Solar 24.60

Table 1. Data from Project Drawdown – describing the impact of different measures to reduce the climate impact . These measures can be implemented within the next 30 years. The total list from the project includes 80 solutions – these are the top ten. The description of the solutions can be found in reference 1.

 

 

Within EU, the F-gas regulation (which was passed in 2014) must be applied. The regulation indicates a faster phase-out of the HFC gases called F-gases. All agreements at international level have positive effects – especially the Montreal Protocol, which works very well. It does not seem that the “new” agreements (mainly the F-gas regulation) have had the same impact. When converting to new refrigerants with less impact on global warming, existing cooling systems need to be radically rebuilt. Sweden, which normally adheres to agreements, does so to a lesser extent when it comes to F-gas regulation. Within the EU, there is a large backlog and a sharp increase in smuggling of banned refrigerants to keep life in refrigeration systems that have not yet been rebuilt. There are several reasons why the transition is slow in Sweden. One reason is that Sweden has not yet introduced a CO2 tax for HFC gases. This tax has been introduced in Norway and Denmark and has resulted in faster rebuilding of systems and acceptance of gases with little to no climate impact.

 

The economic significance of cooling technology is notable but difficult to assess. Global market turnover is expected to rise from from $135bn in 2018 to US$170bn in 2030. Global annual sales of the equipment amount to roughly 500 billion USD. Approximately 15 million people are employed worldwide in the refrigeration sector and the use of refrigeration is widespread in modern society. People in the industrial world cannot live without cooling in the food chain. In low and middle-income countries, food waste in primary production is estimated to 30-40%, while it is significantly smaller in the western world. The waste is primarily caused by poor access to cooling logistics. Another significant use of cooling is in medicine distribution. In recent decades, more and more cars are equipped with AC cooled air. Cooling is also used in offices, shops, work premises and households. In countries with a warmer climate, AC use increases with a better economy. Today, IIR estimates the number of AC units with fixed installations to 2.6 billion, which can be compared with the 2 billion refrigerators placed in households.

 

Cooling technology is both one of the largest contributors to the climate impact and provides a significant contribution to minimising CO2 emissions. Cooling systems are based on heat pumping technology, which in the EU is considered as a sustainable and renewable source of energy. The technology is energy efficient because the output of heat and cooling energy is larger than the required input of electrical energy. A heat pump can be considered a cooling system, utilizing eg. the warm part of the refrigerator. Ordinary refrigerators have a part in the cabinet that removes heat and raises the temperature to above room temperature. The heat is often emitted in the back of the refrigerator.

 

In countries that do not produce electricity in an environmentally sound way, as is common in Sweden, the electrical energy used to operate the cooling system is important from a climate point of view. Cooling systems should be designed and operated as efficiently as possible. The difference between poor and efficient systems is very large. The difference between the required energy input for a bad system can be 3-4 times more than for a good system, to fulfil the same annual cooling need.

 

If the world is to meet existing environmental goals, it is of the utmost importance that the environmental impact of cooling systems is paid attention and debated, so that the measures that can make the most benefit are implemented.

Text by: Lennart Rolfsman & Pia Tiljander

Contact

Pia Tiljander, e-mail

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Impact areas

  • Green jobs

  • Energy savings

  • Reduced costs

  • Reduced climate impact

References:

  1. Project Drawdown. Website: https://www.drawdown.org/
  2. Global Chemicals Outlook II. Website: https://wedocs.unep.org/
  3. IIR. (2019). The Role of refrigeration in the global economy
  4. Regulation (EU) No 517/2014. Website: https://alltomfgas.se/
  5. Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1989)
  6. The Economist. (2019). The Cooling Imperative Forecasting the size and source of future cooling demand
  7. IIR. (2019). The Role of Refrigeration in the Global Economy

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