In recent years, the HVAC industry has undergone significant transformation, driven by the increasing demand for cooling solutions in response to rising global temperatures. Heat pumps, which offer both air conditioning and heating capabilities, have become a popular choice among homeowners and businesses alike. However, while these systems seem like a win-win from a climate perspective, there is a hidden climate secret lurking in our refrigeration and heat pumps that needs to be addressed urgently.
In a thought-provoking Forbes article by Michael Barnard, the author sheds light on the environmental impact of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the chemicals commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. While HFCs don’t harm the ozone layer, they are thousands of times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. This alarming fact brings us face-to-face with a critical dilemma: how do we mitigate the negative climate impact of the HVAC systems that are meant to make our lives more comfortable?
The Climate Accord and the Kigali Amendment
Back in 1987, the nations of the world recognized the devastating effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer and took action by signing the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. Today, nearly four decades later, we can see signs of the ozone layer’s slow recovery. However, the solution to the CFC problem, HFCs, has inadvertently introduced a new challenge—the greenhouse gas conundrum.
To tackle this issue, the world convened in Kigali, Rwanda, in October 2016 and enacted the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. This amendment aimed to address the greenhouse gas implications of HFCs. Now, three-quarters of the world’s countries, including major economies like the USA, China, and the EU, have committed to reducing HFC emissions.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to HFCs that are not only proven but also commercially available in certain regions. For instance, propane, a cost-effective and low-global-warming-potential refrigerant, is widely used in air source heat pumps in Europe. Even carbon dioxide itself can serve as a refrigerant, commonly found in hot water heat pumps.
Project Drawdown, an initiative focused on addressing climate change, highlights the replacement of HFCs as the number one climate action in terms of cost versus benefit. So, why haven’t we fully embraced these alternatives?
Challenges in Transition
The expansion of air conditioning and refrigeration worldwide has led to the widespread use of HFCs in HVAC systems. These chemicals are deeply ingrained in global supply chains, and manufacturers have been slow to transition to environmentally friendly refrigerants. Leakage is also a concern, with commercial air conditioning and heat pump units losing approximately 3% of refrigerant annually, and mini-split heat pumps losing about 4% per year. These seemingly small percentages translate into significant greenhouse gas emissions over time.
Addressing the Issue Locally
Even in environmentally conscious cities like Vancouver, British Columbia, and countries like Canada, the shift away from HFCs faces challenges. Local regulations and consumer demand may encourage the adoption of heat pumps, but the availability of systems with low-carbon refrigerants remains limited. Market dynamics and the influence of global manufacturers continue to hinder progress.
The European Union (EU) Leads the Way
The EU has taken a proactive stance in addressing the HFC issue. Heat pumps with low-global-warming-potential refrigerants are readily available in the EU market. The region has also initiated a schedule to phase out not only HFCs but also hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerants. While HFOs are weak greenhouse gases, they contribute to the problem of forever plastics. Moreover, the EU’s decision to include HFCs in its carbon pricing scheme as of 2026 adds additional pressure for change.
Eliminating HFCs in refrigeration and air conditioning is an imperative climate action that we cannot afford to ignore. We stand at the crossroads of transitioning away from natural gas and adapting to a changing climate, yet the HVAC industry’s reliance on HFCs poses a significant hurdle. Nevertheless, by prioritizing the adoption of low-global-warming-potential refrigerants and pressuring manufacturers to accelerate their transition, we can ensure a greener and more sustainable future.
As we strive to electrify everything, overbuild renewable generation, and implement other climate actions, let us not overlook this hidden climate secret in our refrigerators and heat pumps. By paying attention to motivations and embracing change, we can turn this challenge into an opportunity for a cleaner, healthier planet.
TL;DR: The HVAC industry’s reliance on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in refrigeration and air conditioning systems is a hidden climate problem. HFCs, while ozone-friendly, are potent greenhouse gases. International agreements like the Kigali Amendment aim to address this issue. Alternatives like propane and carbon dioxide exist, but adoption faces challenges due to global supply chains. The EU is leading in adopting low-global-warming-potential refrigerants. Eliminating HFCs is a crucial climate action we must prioritize alongside other environmental initiatives.