The Problem with Refrigerants

33 years ago, every nation in the world united in an unprecedented collaboration to end a pressing environmental problem, the hole in the ozone layer, and signed the Montreal Protocol climate treaty. The Economist Intelligence Unit considers the global pact as the most successful set of policies to address climate change at scale. The agreement banned the continued use of harmful chemicals that cool refrigerators and air conditioning units called CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking. In environmentalist circles, the Montreal Protocol is the holy grail of international cooperation to mitigate the ever-worsening problem of climate change. If only the CFC elimination had ended the cooling crisis.

The new generation of refrigerant chemicals, HFCs, do not deplete the ozone, but the potent warming effect of these gases threatens the trajectory for global development. HFC refrigerants have the atmospheric warming potential of up to 9,000 times that of carbon dioxide. If a refrigerator with a leak emitted one pound of HFC, the emissions would be equivalent to driving between New York City and San Francisco six times – about 16,600 miles (EPA).

Conserving Earth’s resources for future generations conflicts with the immediate need to rapidly increase quality of life in the developing world. Cold chain, the process of transporting and storing temperature sensitive goods, heavily utilizes HFC for predictable refrigeration. To expand global access to fresh, healthy foods without depleting the Earth’s finite resources, the cold chain industry must radically transform to prevent food waste, increase energy efficiency, and eliminate toxic refrigerant leaks.

Developing a Higher Quality of Life

Globalization has created an interconnected world where technology, societal ideals, and standards of life have no geopolitical boundaries. With improved educational and medical resources in developing countries, millions of people are entering the middle class. More citizens can now afford necessities like air conditioning, clean fuel for cooking, and access to fresh food. According to the UN, global poverty has been reduced by half since 2000. With improved standards of living including better nutrition and vaccinations, life expectancy in China has increased from 44-years-old in 1960 to about 78-years-old in 2018 (World Bank). The cold chain expands life expectancy while depleting Earth’s finite resources.

Cooling Paradox

Due to decades of profit-centric decisions across all industries, the future of humanity is at a pivotal moment that requires a major shift in priorities before the Earth reaches its warming tipping point. The signs of climate change are undeniable: from unprecedented and deadly heat waves killing 1,400 in France in 2019 to intense natural disasters, like Hurricane Harvey that caused nearly $125 billion in damage to Houston, Texas in 2017, climate experts agree we need to act swiftly. And yet, China, and especially India, grow warmer with each year and will need more and more cooling to increase health and lifespan. How can we continue to uplift people from poverty while ensuring a sustainable, safe environment for everyone? The worst effects of climate change will take place in poorer countries and threaten people who lack access to resources.

What Next?

To continue development in rising economies, we must also advocate for the expansion of necessary cooling technologies. To do this without destroying the Earth in the process, we have to dramatically improve how the cold chain operates. The transformation is rooted in three crucial facets: bolster energy efficiency, eliminate refrigerant leaks, and prevent perishable product loss. It is imperative to act on these solutions now in order to support a sustainable adoption of the cold chain in India and beyond because this problem is not going away any time soon.

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