Refrigerants’ Major Role in Saving the Planet

In 2017, a new book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, documented and ranked 80 currently available climate-change mitigation technologies and practices based on their ability to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 2020 and 2050.

It became a New York Times bestseller and a touch-stone for environmental activists, policymakers and ordinary citizens looking for guidance on dealing with climate change.

The book was the creation of Project Drawdown, a research initiative founded in 2013 by Paul Hawken, a California-based environmentalist, author, entrepreneur and activist, who also edited the Drawdown book. In addition to its research and publications, supported by 250 researchers and scientists from 22 countries, Project Drawdown offers an open-source database created by a global coalition of stakeholders.

The climate-mitigation measures identified by Project Drawdown are grouped under six categories: electricity production; food, agriculture and land use; industry; transportation; buildings; and other energy-related emissions. More generally, solutions aim to reduce GHG emissions to zero, support carbon-absorbing sinks and address societal inequities.

The term “drawdown” refers to “that point where greenhouse gases go down on a year-to-year basis,” explains Hawken on his LinkedIn page. By pinpointing when and how climate change can be reversed, Project Drawdown is offering a message of hope – that humanity can avoid catastrophic warming with climate solutions that are available today.

Perhaps because of its hopeful message, Drawdown has garnered widespread attention, especially for a book on the environment. “Project Drawdown has done a fabulous job getting the attention of policy- makers and citizens on solutions, and supporting the critical narrative that we have the practical solutions we need at hand to bend the curve on climate change,” said Gabrielle Dreyfus, Head of Policies, Standards & Programs for the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP) and Senior Scientist, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD). “Their framework provides a useful sense of the relative magnitudes of different strategies.”

“The results are presented in a way that is accessible for a wide audience,” said Mark Michelin, Director at California (U.S.)-based CEA Consulting. “It is a huge undertaking and a helpful contribution to the field.”

The solution that ranked No. 1 in Project Drawdown’s 2017 list of climate-mitigation measures? It turned out to be refrigerant management, a strategy in the buildings and industry categories that was projected to eliminate 89.70Gt (billion metric tons) of CO2e emissions under a “plausible scenario.” Overnight, Project Drawdown elevated refrigeration’s status in the fight against global warming. “Project Drawdown did a great job to put cooling and refrigeration No. 1 on the environmental agenda in 2017,” said Toby Peters, professor, cold economy, University of Birmingham, U.K.

That refrigerant management landed in the top spot – higher than onshore wind turbines (No. 2) and solar farms (No. 8) – delighted the natural refrigerants community and came as a surprise to many environmental experts, including Chad Frischmann, Vice President and Research Director for Project Drawdown.

“I was definitely surprised,” said Frischmann, in an interview with Accelerate Magazine. “Fluorinated gases are a significant contributor to global warming, but are a small fraction of the pie. But taken as a whole, it represents the potential global leakage of HFCs, CFCs and HCFCs over a 30-year time period, and it’s really important as a singular solution.”

In early March, Project Drawdown released its first major update to its original book, in a document called The Drawdown Review. The Review, while applying the same research methodology as Drawdown, differs in some respects, such as ranking 76 technologies/practices rather than 80 (some were merged). Some solutions changed their positions in the rankings, reflecting their level of implementation.

Also, Drawdown presented one main scenario (plausible) and two other scenarios (drawdown and optimum) for the top 15 technologies/practices. The Review presents two scenarios (one and two) for all 76 technologies/practices. (Project Drawdown plans to publish a separate paper updating the optimum scenario from the book.)

“We’re always updating our methodology to better represent, to the best of our knowledge, the potential of different technologies and practices,” said Frischmann.

In the refrigerants category, refrigerant management slipped to No. 4 under scenario one, with 57.7Gt of CO2e reduced between 2020 and 2050, a decline from Drawdown’s 89.70Gt. Under the more aggressive scenario two, refrigerant management fell to the No. 9 spot, with slightly more (57.8Gt) CO2e emissions reduced.

However, The Review adds an entirely new category, alternative refrigerants, which ranks 7th (43.5Gt reduced) in scenario one, and 10th (50.6Gt reduced) in scenario two. The alternative refrigerants category reflects the global HFC-reduction effort underway via the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. So by creating a separate category for alternative refrigerants, Project Drawdown reduced the size of the refrigerant management GHG reduction to 57.7Gt (or 57.8Gt) from 89.70Gt, since the transition to new refrigerants results in less HFCs to manage, noted Frischmann.

But combining refrigerant management and alternative refrigerants in scenario one reduces 101.2Gt of GHG emissions, well above the No. 1 individual category, reduced food waste (87.4Gt). In scenario two, the combination removes 108.4Gt, which would rank fourth behind onshore wind turbines (147.8Gt), utility scale solar photovoltaics (119.2Gt) and reduced food waste (94.6Gt).

As an indication of what 101.2Gt and 108.4Gt represent, the latter is almost twice times what the entire planet generated in GHG emissions in 2018 (55.3Gt), according to UNEP (United Nations Envieonment Programme).

Five Ways to Cut Refrigeration Emissions

In The Review, refrigerant management and alternative refrigerants fall under the industry and buildings categories. The industry category accounts for 21% of all heat-trapping emissions, while buildings are responsible for 6%. “We can better manage and dispose of the fluorinated gases  currently used as refrigerants, and, ultimately, replace them with benign alternatives,” said The Review’s  section on industry.

Both the alternative refrigerants and refrigerant management sections posit five main ways to reduce refrigerant emissions:

  • Lowering the demand/use of appliances and thereby production of refrigerants.
  • Replacing refrigerants with low-warming HFCs/ new cooling agents/non-HFC substances.
  • Increasing the refrigeration efficiency in appli- ances, thereby lowering the use of refrigerants.
  • Controlling leakages of refrigerants from existing appliances by good management practices.
  • Ensuring recovery, reclaiming/recycling, and destruction of refrigerants at end of life.

Although the new analysis does not project an exact mix of alternative refrigerants (an average GWP of 10 is used) or model the cost of adoption, “current and emerging refrigerants and appliances (including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and propane) can replace between 67%-82% of HFC refrigerants by 2050,” says The Review in an alternative refrigerants section.

Frischmann said he believes natural refrigerants “are the best alternatives to fluorinated gases.” HFOs, he added, “are a foolhardy attempt to replace one problem with potentially other problems.” Why do that, he argued, “when we have readily available [natural refrigerant] alternatives that are very implementable and will not cause much disruption. We should use those rather than other substances that seem to be very much [promoted by] an industry lobby.”

At the same time, Frischmann pointed to the future potential of other refrigeration technologies, such as absorption cooling systems that link to solar energy.

For refrigerant management, the study projected a net lifetime operating cost (how much more it would cost compared to conventional practices between 2020 and 2050) of US$600 billion in scenario one and US$630 billion in scenario two.

HFOs are a foolhardy attempt to replace one problem with potentially other problems

Chad Frischmann

The Project Drawdown analysis does not include a forecast for indirect emissions reduction through greater energy efficiency, though it cites estimates that this could be “half as much or as great as direct emissions reductions.” Frischmann said that an energy analysis of alternative refrigeration technologies is being developed.

But another recent study conducted by academic and energy/industry experts, to which Peters and Dreyfus contributed, did incorporate energy efficiency of improved cooling systems and found even greater GHG emissions reductions than Project Drawdown.

The study – “Assessment of Climate and Development Benefits of Efficient and Climate-Friendly Cooling” – found that “if today’s best available technologies— for both efficient equipment and climate- friendly refrigerants—were adopted for stationary air conditioning and refrig- eration equipment in 2030, it would be possible to avoid the equivalent of up to 210–460 billion tons of CO2e (GtCO2e) over the next three decades compared to current technologies.” The study was supported by UNEP, IEA and K-CEP.

“This is both the prize and what’s at stake if we miss the opportunity to move aggressively on both the refrigerant and efficiency aspects of cooling in a coordinated and intentional manner,” said Dreyfus.

Peters described this study as “an evidence-based anchor point that can help support Project Drawdown and governments in understanding the impact that energy-efficient cooling can have on our climate goals.”

The refrigerant management section of The Review, which used an average GWP of 2,326 for HFCs, noted that effective end-of-life disposal of HFC refrigerants – whether through recycling or destruction – is essential, since 90% of emissions happen at that point. Refrigerant manage- ment also includes preventing leakages of refrigerant in existing equipment, particularly centralized commercial and industrial systems with elaborate piping.

Project Drawdown suggests that economic incentives for recovery, recycling and destruction of refrigerants, such as the issue of carbon credits under the Kyoto protocol, “would help increase the adoption in developing countries.”

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO with offices in Washington, D.C. (U.S.) and London, England, has been a strong  advocate of measures to address F- gases in end-of-life equipment. In a report issued last year called “Search, Reuse and Destroy: Initiating Global Discussion to Act on a 100 Billion Ton Climate Problem,” EIA said that preventing emissions of fluo- rinated greenhouse gases “is the single greatest near-term strategy to achieve faster and deeper emission reductions consistent with limiting global warming to within 1.5°C.”

In March, a study published in Nature reported that emissions from unrecovered sources, or “banks,” of CFCs could delay the Antarctic ozone hole recovery by about six years and contribute 9Gt of CO2e emissions between 2020 and 2100.

Since there is typically little or no business case for collecting and destroying HFCs, Frischmann would also like municipalities and communities to invest more in refrigerant waste management systems that can recycle or destroy fluorinated gases. “It’s hard for individuals to know what to do,” he said. “That’s where municipalities can step up to provide waste management services.”

Frischmann said he would like to see Project Drawdown’s data serve as a “kick in the ass” to the refrigeration industry to start adopting natural refrigerant technology. “Natural refrigerants are available and it makes no sense to continue to harm the planet and humanity by producing HFCs, or even HFOs with their uncertainty and potentially negative externalities,” he said.

“We should take the [Project Drawdown] data as motivation to really change the industry. I’d like to see this be a moment for producers of refrigeration equipment to really shift their operations as soon as possible in the direction of creating equipment that best uses natural refrig- erants, and investing in innovative ways to make that happen.”

Other Cooling Solutions

In addition to refrigerant management and alternative solutions, Project Drawdown analyzes the climate impact of a number of other cooling-related technologies, including insulation, high-performance glass, smart thermostats, building automation systems, high-efficiency heat pumps, green & cool roofs and dynamic glass.

Most of these other solutions improve the efficiency of a cooling system or reduce the demand for cooling. In addition, high-efficiency heat pumps, which could use natural refrigerants, are seen as a substitute for heating equipment that relies on fossil fuels.

All told, refrigerant management, alternative refrigerants, high-efficiency heat pumps, and efficiency-enhancing secondary solutions eliminate 146.4Gt of CO2e under scenario one, or nearly 15% of the total emissions reduced or sequestered by all 76 of Project Drawdown’s climate- mitigation solutions. Under scenario two, cooling removes 169.2Gt of emissions, or about 11% of the total. While these numbers include non-cooling related emissions savings, they don’t reflect the considerable amount of emissions that natural refrigerant cooling equipment reduces by virtue of its efficiency.

In Project Drawdown’s analysis of high-efficiency heat pumps, end users would shell out an additional US$76 billion ($9,911 installed cost per unit), but would save US$1 trillion in operating costs between 2020 and 2030 because of the elimination of fossil-fuel equipment. The cost rises to US$200 billion in scenario two but so does the operational savings (US$2.6 trillion).

“Heat pumps can serve as an efficient and sustainable solution to indoor space conditioning with high-efficiency,” says The Review. “Retrofitting existing HVAC systems with state-of-the-art heat pump equipment is a viable option for consumers looking for ways to reduce building energy costs, without having to make major investments or structural changes to the building.”

Another key cooling technology (also used for other applications) is building automation systems (BAS). Project Drawdown puts the net cost to implement BAS at US$200 billion and US$300 billion in scenarios one and two respectively, with a net operational savings of US$1.7 trillion and US$3.1 trillion, respectively. The study cites IEA data saying that BAS can cut energy consumption in commercial systems by up to 40%.

“Trends in automation and the growth of the Internet of Things, which connects many building devices, can accelerate the adoption of BAS across the global commercial building stock by making smaller systems more cost-effective,” says The Review.

By presenting so many related solutions in one study, Project Drawdown encourages a more comprehensive and integrated approach to climate mitigation than any one solution. That aligns with the philosophy espoused by Peters of the University  of Birmingham, U.K., with respect to cooling. “We should not be looking at the impact of cooling in siloes,” he said. “The win is focusing on clean cooling in its entirety.”

For Project Drawdown, Frischmann designed his models “so that we could develop an integrated global system that’s harmonized,” he said. “It’s not dozens of models all doing different things; we have a consistent methodological approach to all sectors so we can compare apples to apples to apples to apples to apples.”

Moreover, Project Drawdown envisions its scope as surpassing even climate change mitigation. Frischmann sees the healing of the climate setting off “a series of cascading benefits” similar to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).“It will help humanity and planetary well-being for all, addressing social inequities, human rights, poverty alleviation, health, nutrition and biodiversity, as well as improving livelihoods.”

How Drawdown Works

Project Drawdown offers in its latest analysis two scenarios for climate miti- gation, one and two. Both scenarios enable humanity to achieve drawdown – “the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline” – but at different rates.

The study employs the FAIR climate model to determine the parts per million (ppm) of CO2e that each scenario would deliver, compared to a baseline, which estimates ppm if technologies are fixed at 2014 levels.

Under scenario one – which the study calls “ambitious, at least compared to today’s political commitments to climate action” – drawdown would occur in about 2065, when CO2e concentrations would peak at about 540ppm (compared to nearly 460ppm today). The resulting global mean temperature would be 1.74˚C above pre-industrial levels in 2050 and rise to 1.85˚C in 2060, eventually peaking at 2˚C by 2100.

The Paris climate accord’s goal is to keep temperature rise well below 2˚C. That goal can be achieved under scenario two, a faster and more aggressive adoption of climate solutions, which reaches drawdown in about 2045. CO2e concen- trations would peak at about 490ppm and then fall slightly by 2050 to about 485ppm. Temperatures would continue to rise after drawdown, with peak warming around 1.52˚C through the 2050s.

Cooling’s Role in Reducing Food Waste

Reduced food waste is the No. 1 climate-mitigation solution in Project Drawdown’s scenario one, cutting 87.4Gt of CO2e between 2020 and 2050. In scenario two, it’s No. 3, but it reduces even more CO2e, 94.6Gt.

If food waste were a country, it would rank as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind only the U.S. and China.

Access to cooling plays a significant part in helping to reduce food waste, particularly in less developed countries early in the supply chain, where food rots on farms or spoils during storage or distribution.

“Improving infrastructure for storage, processing and transpor- tation is essential,” says The Drawdown Review in its reduced food waste analysis.

But how the cold chain infrastructure gets developed – whether efficient and climate friendly refrigeration systems are used –“will make a big difference for how much of the benefits of reduced food loss are realized or lost,” said Gabrielle Dreyfus, Head of Policies, Standards & Programs for the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP) and Senior Scientist, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD).

A new study by the World Resources Institute – “Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Setting a Global Action Agenda” – offers several cooling-related solutions for developing countries, including:

  • Aggregation centers that provide adequate storage and preservation options, such as cooling chambers.
  • Mobile packhouses and pre-cooling, which provide a way for farmers to get produce to markets without spoilage and without the need for large capital outlay.
  • Evaporative cooling systems, which enable storage of crops at lower temperatures, without electricity, and at a lower-cost.

On-farm solar preservation, which can provide energy to farmers that will allow them to adopt practices, such as on-farm cooling, that reduce post-harvest loss.