Protecting the environment with intelligence

F-gas alternatives are working in your home right now!

As a campaigner working on climate change policy, it’s easy to get lost in a world of abstract figures. A few million tonnes of carbon here, a billion dollars there – it can all seem very academic and unreal.

Polar bear (c) Mathieu Belanger, Reuters

At the other extreme, there are those stories that bring you back to earth with a crunch, like the ongoing decline of polar bears in Manitoba, in Canada, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. These can get you down and, combined with global thumb-twiddling, can make everything seem very bleak.

It is important, therefore, to remind yourself that progress is happening, and that things can get better. It is also important to remember what all these emissions mean and where they come from.

As an example, we at EIA are currently working on getting politicians to agree an ambitious revision of the European Union’s F-Gas Regulation (stay with me). F-gases are so called because they contain fluorine, and are a family of man-made greenhouse gases used mainly as refrigerants. They are powerful global warming agents, weight for weight hundreds or thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Altogether, they account for about two per cent of Europe’s emissions and could comprise 20 per cent of global emissions by the middle of the century.

The trouble with F-gases is that it’s hard to get people that excited about them. The percentages and acronyms put people off. Throw in a range of chemicals with names such as HFC-134a and HCFC-22, and most of your audience has put up ‘do not disturb’ signs on their foreheads. The truth is, though, that this is all very simple. It is just about what chemicals we use to cool down our food, homes and factories. Is essence, it is about fridges and air-conditioning. Each one of us will have used F-gases at some point in our lives, and most will do so every day. Virtually every supermarket and shop in the world uses F-gases. So too does the office water cooler or the hotel air-con.

The next thing, then, is what can we do about it? These things are everywhere, right? They’re too big to stop? Well, yes and no. The fact that they are everywhere means there’s a big problem, but also a big opportunity.

The good news is that there are lots of chemicals we can use to run cooling systems, many of which don’t harm the climate at all. In fact, this has already started happening. Before the mid-1990s, virtually every household fridge-freezer used F-gases. There were other options, but no-one much was using them. Then Greenpeace came forward and, working with an old fridge manufacturer in Germany, pioneered the use of an alternative chemical which they called greenfreeze, but which is really just a mixture of gases such as propane and butane (the kind you find in camping stoves). The F-gas industry ridiculed it – it would be dangerous, some said; the fridges would catch fire and kill people; the efficiency would be terrible. None of it was true. Nowadays, virtually every new fridge in Europe uses this technology, and no-one has even realised. Appliances don’t explode, and prices haven’t soared. Since each fridge used to contain the carbon dioxide equivalent of driving a car from London to Berlin and back, that makes a big difference to the environment.

Back to the present and we once again have a huge opportunity. EIA is pressing for ambitious new laws. We want F-gases phased out by 2020. ‘No way, it’ll never work’ is likely to be the industry response. I imagine it won’t be long before we are accused of being dangerous and irresponsible. The opposite is true. It will be a huge battle, but if we get this right, and our phase-out goes through, no-one will really notice a difference in their day-to-day lives, but we will have saved hundreds of millions of tonnes worth of carbon emissions.

To put it in context, our plan would save the equivalent of 20 per cent of France’s carbon emissions, every year. That wouldn’t be bad for an issue no-one has heard of, and a bit of much-needed good news for the climate into the bargain.


Alasdair Cameron

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