Your Air Conditioner Has a Greater Impact on the Environment Than Your Wallet

Posted on February 28, 2022

Sustainability Sec March 22 Horizontal

We all know that cooling is energy expensive, especially air conditioning in warm climates. So, it should come as no shock to learn that the cooling industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions. For comparison, aviation and shipping combined produce about one-third this amount. This is really a double-edged sword, too: the more refrigeration that occurs, the greater the impact on global warming making refrigerants more and more necessary as the climate warms up. So, the sooner we make positive changes to our refrigeration and cooling habits, the better chance we have of reducing their negative impacts.

Why does refrigeration and cooling have such a negative impact on climate change?

Sure, the amount and source of energy used for cooling matters. But most of the impact that refrigeration and cooling have on the environment comes from the refrigerants used to make these machines do their job. Some measures have already been taken to reduce the impact that refrigerants have on the environment. Earlier generations of refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), were found to reduce the amount of ozone in the atmosphere and were phased out over time. After getting rid of CFCs, the industry shifted towards hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). HFCs and HCFCs have a much smaller impact on the ozone layer but they pose another problem almost equally as alarming - some of these have an 11,700 times more potent effect on warming the atmosphere than CO2.

How is this possible? Well, HFCs and HCFCs absorb infrared radiation. This causes heat to be trapped in the atmosphere rather than being released back into space. And these refrigerants can get into the atmosphere from leaky air conditioning and refrigeration systems. But that’s not their primary means for emission. Over 90% of refrigerant emissions comes from the end of their life during their disposal. If these chemicals are extracted and stored properly, they can be purified and reused or chemically altered into other substances. The proper disposal of refrigerants could cut out over 100 billion gigatons of global CO2 emissions over the next three decades. So, if you’re looking to make a change in your life that could have a major impact on the environment, this is a great place to start.

The most common type of refrigerant used in domestic refrigerators is HFC-134a. HFC-134a has a warming potential equal to 3400 times that of CO2. Average refrigerators hold anywhere from 0.05kg to 0.25kg of refrigerant. So, if improperly disposed of and allowed to leak into the atmosphere, the resulting emissions could be equivalent to driving an average U.S. car up to 2,100 miles!

How can I properly dispose of my appliances that use refrigerant?

The first thing to mention is that you should never attempt to cut any lines in the refrigeration system. Doing so would immediately release HFC gases to the atmosphere. If you hire an AC or refrigerator repairman to look at your system and they decide that it can be repaired, make sure that they are certified under Section 608 from the Clean Air Act. This Act ensures that the process is being done correctly by using a collection machine and a reusable cylinder to capture any HFC gas. If you see the repairman emptying the gas into a plastic jug or into no container at all, they are not doing it the right way and gas is leaking into the atmosphere. These actions can be directly reported to the EPA through the tip line.

If the repairman decides that your system can not be repaired and needs to be replaced, check with your electric utility company to see if they have a turn-in program. If not, check out the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal Program to find certified technicians to dispose of your system in an environmentally friendly way. And once you have disposed of your old system, remember to look for a new system that uses non-HFC refrigerants. Luckily, in the US, appliances that use HFC refrigerants should be phased out beginning in 2022.

Thank you for joining us for this review of the BBC’s article “How your fridge is heating up the planet” by Isabelle Gerretsen. Please think about these tips as you need to dispose of your old refrigeration appliances in the future! And don’t forget to join us next month for more tips to become more environmentally friendly.