Refrigerant Emissions and the Fight Against Climate Change
The time is now for government and industry to innovate our way out of the climate crisis by reducing refrigerant emissions
On January 27, 2021, newly-elected President Joseph R. Biden signed several climate-related executive orders, aptly labeling the occasion ‘Climate Day.’ From taking action on fossil fuel subsidies to re-establishing the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, these orders represent a monumental — and needed — shift in federal climate priorities. Given these new priorities, President Biden has stated a goal of creating a carbon-neutral United States by 2050, leading to several calls for legislative action. One priority among these is the reduction of refrigerant emissions.
President Biden’s executive orders along with potential legislation could lead to a complete overhaul on emissions regulations, resulting in significant changes for the commercial cold chain ecosystem. With the Biden administration targeting a reduction in refrigerant emissions (the super-heating compounds that make refrigeration work), companies across the cold chain will soon need to innovate.
Refrigerant Emissions and their Environmental Impact
Refrigerant emissions are a largely unknown, yet significant, contributor of global carbon emissions. Cooling devices, such as refrigerators and air conditioners, utilize compressed, fluorinated gases to control ambient air conditions. These chemicals help provide thermal comfort and ensure the quality of perishable products like food and pharmaceuticals. However, their tendency to leak into the atmosphere has perpetuated a phenomenon known as the cooling crisis.
In the 20th century, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were the primary refrigerants used in cooling devices. It was later discovered these chemicals had a profound, unintended effect: depleting the ozone layer. That realization led to the creation and global ratification of the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Widespread adoption of this accord ended the era of these “ozone-eaters.” However, this success was short-lived as their successor compounds, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), became widespread.
Although HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they contribute to emissions at 1,000 to 9,000x the rate of carbon dioxide. These effects have generated concern in the scientific community. Compounding this issue is the massive growth in “cooling capacity” anticipated in the years ahead. Global cold storage has increased by 16.7% since 2018, while air conditioning ownership is projected to increase by four billion units in the next three decades.
Another area of concern, according to a recent eye-opening Washington Post piece, lies in supermarkets’ use of refrigeration. In the US, the supermarket industry estimates they have a 25% annual discharge rate of refrigerants. However, new findings from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have indicated that the problem may be worse than previously thought. An undercover EIA investigation discovered that ~55% of the 45 surveyed supermarkets have refrigerant leakage issues. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that greenhouse emissions from a single supermarket were equal to that of 300 cars. In total, the industry’s refrigerant leaks are the equivalent of burning 49 billion tons of coal.
Governmental Response to Refrigerant Emissions
According to Project Drawdown, a leading research group studying climate change, addressing refrigerant emissions is one of the most critical aspects in reducing industry-driven emissions. As such, the Biden administration is calling for action.
In an executive order titled “Tackling The Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” President Biden instructed the State Department to ‘prepare… a transmittal package’ to the Senate to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The Kigali Amendment calls on countries to reduce HFC usage by 80% over the next few decades. If implemented, this agreement could have important implications: scientists estimate that this agreement could halt an increase of atmospheric temperatures by one degree Fahrenheit.
The American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, passed in December 2020, mandates that the EPA reduce HFCs’ production and importation by 85 percent over the next 15 years. Paired with other climate initiatives, this legislation reflects the Biden administration’s aggressive efforts to tackle refrigerant emissions.
Businesses Can Save Money and Reduce Emissions
Through innovation, the cooling industry can increase profits while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Real-time temperature and humidity monitoring is one important innovation, offering companies critical data insights to prevent equipment failures. Since 90% of refrigerant emissions occur at equipment end of life, identifying refrigeration failures is especially important for reducing refrigerant emissions. This is also an important financial priority for companies, given that cooling equipment is expensive and effective repairs can extend asset life and reduce capital expenses.
At Therma, we’re building technology to reduce refrigerant emissions while also promoting the cooling industry. We offer temperature and humidity sensors that can analyze commercial refrigeration efficiency in real-time. Our innovative technology allows clients to identify costly equipment malfunctions before they occur. Through predictive analytics, Therma is creating a cold chain that actively solves the largest pain points and cost drivers in the cooling industry.
With the Biden administration’s calls for reduced emissions in the cold chain, now is the time for our government and businesses to work together.
Co-Written by Manik Suri and Jason Lam
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