HFCs are a type of gasses that contain fluorine, widely used to replace ozone destroying freon as a refrigerant.
How can we measure the harm to the
climate created by HFCs?
The most common measurement is called the Global Warming Potential or GWP—a calculation of how powerful a greenhouse gas is over a speciic timescale compared to carbon dioxide, which has a GWP of one. The GWP of any greenhouse gas will differ depending on whether its potency is measured on a 20 year, 100 year or 500 year timescale. The 100 year timescale is the most commonly used in policy circles when a given emission of HFCs is converted to CO2 equivalent emissions. The GWPs of HFCs range from 53 to almost 15,000. The most commonly used is HFC 134a with a GWP of 1430 over 100 years. However, 134a has a short atmospheric lifetime (~14-16 years) making its 20 year GWP over 3000 times that of CO2. If you bought your home refrigerator or your car within the last 10 years, it almost certainly uses HFC 134a to keep your food cold and cool your vehicle.
HFCs have a big drawback, they are extremely potent greenhouse gasses with one pound of HFCs being the equivalent of 1,430 pounds of CO2. HFCs aren't as long lived as CO2 concentrating their effects in the near term exactly when we need to be doing the most to cut back human produced greenhouse gasses.
What will be the overall impact of F-gases and HFCs to global warming?
The Montreal Protocol is often dubbed the most successful environmental treaty. However, despite its best efforts, the cumulative CFC, HCFC and HFC pollution now in the atmosphere was directly responsible for 17% of man-made global warming in 2005. Over the next 20 years, HFCs will make up 8.6% of global greenhouse gases emissions, according to a German research institute (see footnote xi). If HFCs are chosen as the Business-As-Usual replacement for the popular HCFC-22, HFC production will hit the equivalent of 6.85 billion tons of CO2 in 2050.
How fast are HFC emissions increasing throughout the world?
Between 1995 and 2000, HFC 134a emissions increased by 421%. In a more recent study, HFC 134a and HFC 125 (another common HFC) emissions were shown to be growing at a rate of 20% per year. This rapid increase was measured in a seemingly untouched part of our planet: Svalbard (an island archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole).
The good news is we have ready alternatives to HFCs like Ammonia and CO2 that are inexpensive and more efficient coolants than HFCs. A few forward looking corporations are already shifting to non HFC refrigerants. Coca-Cola plans to convert to HFC-free refrigerant in all the new vending machines and coolers it produces by 2015.
A shift away from HFCs would end the chemical industry's monopoly on producing these refrigerants so they will fight for continued use of HFCs tooth and nail. Greenpeace itself even developed an open source formula for an environmentally safe refrigerant anyone is welcome to utilize.
The Obama E.P.A. needs to mandate phasing out HFCs under the Clean Air Act. For the Obama E.P.A. to further delay addressing HFCs while taking other actions to is reduce greenhouse gas emissions is inconsistent. The E.P.A. also needs to do a much better job of recovering HFCs from automobiles, and refrigerators, and air conditioners at the end of their useful lives.