Refrigerants & Reclaim / Standards & Legislation

The Future of HFCs in Montreal Protocol

April 8, 2013
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It’s easy to argue that no single development has impacted the HVACR industry as much as the Montreal Protocol. The international treaty, which was signed 25 years ago, ultimately phased out CFC and HCFC production; introduced refrigerant recovery, recycling, and reclamation; and, essentially, enveloped the HVACR industry under the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which now dictates certifications and penalties related to the use and handling of refrigerants.

More than two decades later, the worldwide contract is still strongly impacting many sectors of the HVACR industry, including the decisions of contractors and service technicians. Ongoing discussions are currently underway, examining ways to incorporate HFCs into the protocol in order to phase down their use due to relatively high global warming potential (GWP). And while no changes are expected in the foreseeable future, these continuing conversations, and the potential developments pending, have surely caught the attention of those across the industry.

Good News

But first, the good news: The protocol was designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of substances found to be responsible for ozone depletion, those having ozone depleting potential (ODP).

And, it appears to be working.

“The Montreal Protocol is widely recognized for being very effective in reducing ozone depleting substances including CFCs and HCFCs,” said Robert Wilkins, vice president of public affairs, Danfoss. “Although we do not expect atmospheric chlorine to return to pre-1980 levels until about 2050, it has peaked and has been trending downward for several years.”

The Emergence of HFCs

With the HVACR industry forced to turn away from CFCs and HCFCs, it has moved on to HFCs, which include no ODP. However, many HFCs carried a high GWP due to their abilities to trap infrared radiations in the atmosphere, which does contribute to the greenhouse effect.

The latest efforts to revise the Montreal Protocol include rating gases based on GWP, as well as ODP.

Rajan Rajendran, vice president of engineering services and sustainability for Emerson Climate Technologies, noted, “The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have proposed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address global warming with a phase down of HFCs. This effort has been in place for a few years now. While there are 107 other countries supporting it, there are other, more developing countries like India, China, and Brazil who oppose. One barrier that is often mentioned is that the Montreal Protocol has historically had a very clear mission of addressing ozone depletion, but climate change is outside of its charter.”

Danfoss’ Wilkins added, “The EPA and the Department of State jointly held a stakeholders meeting in Washington on Feb. 5 with American industry leaders and others to discuss possible steps forward. With industry representatives expressing support for a well-planned orderly global HFC phase down on a GWP-weighted basis, it is likely the North American proposal will be resubmitted in 2013 for consideration at this year’s annual meeting.”

But what happens after that is uncertain, although many expect minimal action for a few subsequent years.

Mack McFarland, environmental fellow, DuPont Chemicals & Fluoroproducts, said, “The proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol has not yet been endorsed by all of the developing countries. Amendments are adopted by consensus. Discussions continue with more and more countries voicing their support each year. I think the industry views the predictable process under the Montreal Protocol as preferable to country-by-country command and control regimes.”

Rajendran agreed. “While there are efforts to make some changes in the protocol, I don’t believe we’ll see any changes in the next few years.”

Europe and the US

European leaders are conversationally discussing HFC regulations based on GWP.

According to the website R-744.com, “The debate did advance, with countries discussing HFC amendment proposals in an informal setting, as well as requesting more information on the availability of environmentally sound alternatives to ozone depleting substances.”

R-744.com noted that this debate has spanned four years, without resolution. In his second inaugural address President Barack Obama said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” He did not specify any specific proposals during this speech.

A Feb. 12 report from the White House, titled, “The President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America,” revived calls for more reliance on solar and wind energy generation. The only reference to climate change was the statement, “The president has directed his cabinet to identify executive actions from across the administration to help reduce pollution, prepare our cities and nation for the worsening effects of climate change, and accelerate the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

But most do not see this as an omen for unilateral action. For one, a divided Congress seems unlikely to act on potentially costly initiatives. And many in the industry see the EPA wanting to work in the framework of a global consensus.

At the same time, Rajendran did suggest, “The HVACR industry in the U.S. should be watching the emerging U.S. state government regulations out of the West and Northeast as well as potential U.S. government actions and regulations on greenhouse gasses.”

DuPont’s McFarland said, “There are a broad range of global activities under way to address greenhouse gas emissions, such as the U.S. CAFE standard for lightweight motor vehicles, renewable fuels, electricity programs in various countries, and cap-and-trade pilots in China. We anticipate that absent of a global agreement such as the Montreal Protocol, the U.S. government will seek ways to reduce HFC emissions under its current authority.”

But, in the context of a global perspective, Wilkins said progress may occur slowly. “Any changes to the Montreal Protocol would take a few years to enact. If India and China could be persuaded to support an HFC phase down, leading to a global consensus, the Montreal Protocol would then undergo negotiations to finalize the amendment and provide specific targets and timetables for phasing down HFCs globally. The amendment would then need to be ratified country by country. In the U.S., that would likely require action by the Senate. Once approved, each country could begin its own process for phasing down HFCs — similar to the phase down of CFCs and HCFCs.”

SIDEBAR: A No-Go for Kyoto

If changes to the Montreal Protocol are slow starters in regards to any additional impact on HVACR contractors, the Kyoto Protocol is a non-starter. Kyoto was to be the document to obligate countries, starting in 2005, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Many countries signed and ratified it. The U.S. signed it, but failed to ratify it and Canada withdrew from it in 2011.

Even then, many ratifiers had problems reducing GHG emissions to promised levels. However, more than 100 nations have pledged support behind the regulation of GHG emissions through the Montreal Protocol, and a growing number of countries are ready to join on, if a draft is ever presented.

Mack McFarland, environmental fellow, DuPont Chemicals & Fluoroproducts, said, “While there are no discussions under the Kyoto Protocol specific to the HVACR industry, there are active discussions under the Montreal Protocol.”

Robert Wilkins, vice president of public affairs, Danfoss, acknowledged that climate change is emerging as an important issue for the Obama administration. “Since the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and nothing has developed regarding refrigerants, there isn’t likely to be any impact on the HVACR industry.”

Rajan Rajendran, vice president of engineering services and sustainability for Emerson Climate Technologies, said climate-change regulations could still surface in the U.S.

“From the Kyoto Protocol point of view, which is focused on climate change, the HVACR industry in the U.S. should be watching the emerging U.S. state government regulations on greenhouse gases.”

Publication date: 4/8/2013 

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