Stop Blaming Global Warming on Air Conditioners

August 27, 2012
Despite the success of the Montreal Protocol — and increased efficiency standards — a recent New York Times article centered on a group of “leading scientists” who believe that if planetary potential is maxed out, 27 percent of all global warming effects to 2050 can be attributed to the gasses utilized in air conditioners.

Who’s to Blame?

Air conditioning is far from the global-warming antagonist The New York Times columnists and energy-efficiency gurus make it out to be. In a cast of ozone-depleting characters, HFCs, along with cohorts CFCs and HCFCs, rank well below fossil fuel emissions, automobile exhaust, methane produced from animal dung, deforestation, and other sky-ripping agents.

Sure, there is no denying that the air conditioning industry is responsible for its fair share of the blame, but, comfort comes at a price. There is no denying that air conditioners release operational gases, however, since Willis Carrier blessed planet Earth with his genius invention 110 years ago, air conditioners have achieved great strides in energy efficiency and environmental stewardship.

In 1987, the United Nations enacted the Montreal Protocol, which facilitated the phase out of CFCs and HCFCs. HCFCs were banned by the U.S. government in 2010 and have since been replaced by HFCs. According to Espere, HCFCs typically have much shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CFCs, but still act as strong greenhouse gases in the troposphere.

A new industry standard, R-410A, an HFC, is deemed as a “more environmentally friendly” refrigerant. Because R-410A is not considered an ozone-depleting gas, it is not mandated under the Montreal Protocol.

More efficient equipment offers fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In January 2006, the industry was mandated to improve minimum operational efficiency from 10 SEER to 13 SEER. In 2013, and again in 2015, the HVAC industry is being asked to again adhere to a government-driven increase in minimum efficiency across each region nationwide.

Through these regulations, and numerous other industry-driven improvements, today’s air conditioning units are much more efficient, safer, cleaner, and environmentally friendly than those of yesteryear.

A Manufacturer’s Dilemma

The industry is already eyeing up the next step toward cleaner operations. While hydrocarbons, and other environmentalist-lauded coolants such as CO2, ammonia, and HFOs are on the horizon, odds are products utilizing these refrigerants will not be introduced to the masses any time soon.

As each new refrigerant is developed, the government will require a lengthy regulatory review, which, based upon Washington’s current structure, may take a few days… These refrigerants will then be put through numerous safety reviews and tests before being allowed. Manufacturers will then be faced with the challenge of incorporating the new refrigerant model into its products. The reality exists that manufacturers may be reluctant to embrace these new refrigerants. Most existing units utilize R-410A refrigerant or existing alternatives. If a more-efficient, “state-of-the-art” system is introduced; it may deem a manufacturer’s existing product line useless. Do you opt to pop in a cassette player, rather than a CD? Do you prefer DVDs over Blu-Ray discs? Why should manufacturers hurry along new technology when existing ideology is still ringing at the register?

Pollution Pity Party

As Americans, we’ve been blessed with indoor cooling for more than a century. However, for those living in lesser conditions, air conditioning is an absolute luxury that is just now being heralded.

In the aforementioned The New York Times editorial, the author commented that air conditioning sales are growing at a rate of 20 percent annually in China and India. In the immediate future, Mumbai, India, and its 14 million residents, is anticipated to hatch a cooling demand nearly 25 percent the size of the United States. As the demand grows, so does the volume of air conditioning exhaust.

It is no secret that China is in the driver’s seat when it comes to fulfilling this demand. Last year, more than 70 percent of the world’s household air conditioners were made in China. To the dismay of our environmentalist friends, most of those units utilize R-22, which fits older, cheaper systems commonly installed across undeveloped and growing countries.

But, don’t fret, a solution is on its way. A recent revision to the Montreal Protocol requires that global HCFC consumption is “stabilized” by Jan. 1, 2013, with all developed countries required to follow a 90 percent reduction from baseline by 2015. So, while HCFC use may rise toward the new year, it is expected to drop in subsequent years, as its use is phased out worldwide.

So, while The New York Times remains critical, may I quickly point out that the HVAC industry — under the finger-wagging direction of the government — is doing its part. And if the talking heads over at The NYT digress, may I suggest they simply power down their air conditioners. It’s only fair they do their part. Our ancestors (prior to 1902) survived just fine without air conditioners. I’m sure they’ll make it a summer or two without them.

Publication date: 8/27/2012

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