Rethinking air conditioning in the midst of climate change

Rethinking air conditioning in the midst of climate change

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It was a monumental day for the environmental movement more than 30 years ago, when all 198 countries in the world agreed on something for the first time and only once. They joined the Montreal Protocol, making a pact to phase out a list of chemicals that damage the Earth’s ozone layer. Chief among these were the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons used by the cooling and refrigeration industry. Alternatives, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), were quickly found.

But in recent years, scientists have come to realize that the 1987 Montreal Protocol may have turned an immediate problem into a long-term one. Although HFCs do not cause the same damage to the ozone layer as CFCs, the chemicals have heating potentials hundreds to thousands of times higher than that of CO.2– making their growing global use a cause for concern.

The 20th century industrial revolution saw a major boom in the air conditioning and refrigeration industry in Europe and North America. Now, as developing nations strengthen their economies, countries like China, India and Nigeria are seeing a rising demand for these devices.

About 3.6 billion cooling devices – to cool buildings and cool food and other items such as medicines – are in use today, according to 2020 report of the United Nations Environment Program; the number is expected to jump to 9.5 billion by 2050. In addition, that figure would be an astonishing 14 billion if everyone who needed cooling services could get them, according to one estimate.

Known Magazine spoke with Shelie Miller, an environmental engineer at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Miller co-authored an article in 2021 Annual Environment and Resources Review that examined the growing global demand for cooling and refrigeration, its effects on greenhouse gas emissions, and possible solutions. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This may sound like a strange topic to many people. Why should we care about the refrigeration and refrigeration industry?

When people think about the environmental impacts that need to be addressed, it is very rare for people to think about cooling services. But it’s an incredibly important issue that isn’t really being addressed. “Cooling service” is a very broad category that relates to temperature-controlled environments. And it intersects the building, transportation, and food sectors. It has a terrible effect when you start looking at overall global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

And the industry is ready to see exponential growth in developing countries. So it’s important that we take note of the overall impact of the industry.

How does the cooling and refrigeration industry affect the environment?

Cooling an environment, whether it’s a home refrigerator or an air conditioner, requires an enormous amount of energy. Because our electricity grids are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, any energy use that leads to a reduction in temperature also emits greenhouse gases. So much of the environmental impact is simply the consumption of an incredible amount of energy, mostly based on fossil fuels.

Also, when we talk about the technology of cooling spaces, it requires something called refrigerants. Refrigerants are chemicals that are used to reduce temperatures and conventional refrigerants often have a high global warming potential.

So even though we use a relatively small amount of refrigerants, the effect of refrigerants as they flow into the atmosphere ends up having a significant impact on climate.

We once used refrigerants like CFCs, which had a gigantic effect on the ozone layer. So we banned them and introduced new chemicals. Did we just trade problems here?

One of the great environmental successes is the banning of certain ozone-depleting chemicals. As you mentioned, one of the major environmental conventions, the Montreal Protocol, has banned the use of ozone-depleting chemicals in the refrigeration industry. As substitutes, we invented hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs. And that has done an excellent and effective job of reducing ozone depletion, but at the cost of warming.

So we exchanged the potential for ozone depletion with high greenhouse gas emissions. In another international agreement called the Kigali Amendment, nations are trying to address the greenhouse gas-related problems with refrigerants. So we are now trying to have alternative refrigerants that also have lower global warming.

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