Decades ago, CFCs were identified as detrimental to the stratospheric ozone and are being effectively phased out by the Clean Air Act and the 1987 international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol. These chemicals are now also known to be greenhouse gases with a global warming potential up to 11,000 times as strong as carbon dioxide by weight. Unfortunately, millions of products such as refrigerators, air conditioners, fire extinguishers and aerosol cans that contain CFCs are still in use around the world and are nearing the end of their usable lives. The next 10-20 years present a unique one-time opportunity to prevent emissions from these products as they are retired and therefore mitigate ozone damage and global climate change.
On October 2, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about the stockpile of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in old equipment and building infrastructure, and the enormous potential for these potent greenhouse gases to accelerate climate change. These CFC “banks” store the equivalent of 18 billion tons of carbon dioxide, approximately one-third of which will be emitted over the next decade under business as usual. This briefing explained how CFCs contribute to climate change, opportunities in international treaties and pending federal legislation such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) to incentivize safe collection and destruction, and the pros and cons of alternative gases.
- CFCs, HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), are primarily used as refrigerants and in insulating foams. CFCs and HCFCs destroy the ozone layer in the stratosphere and are powerful greenhouse gases. They have been predominantly replaced in new equipment by HFCs, which don't deplete the ozone layer but do still cause global warming.
- The production and consumption of CFCs and HCFCs are regulated under the Montreal Protocol. Emissions of HFCs are regulated under the Kyoto Protocol.
- The existing banks of CFCs and HCFCs are not regulated under either agreement; there is a gap in international regulation.
- CFCs can be destroyed safely if captured. These processes permanently remove a global warming threat and they are highly verifiable and practical today. A significant portion of CFCs are at risk of leaking in the next decade, meaning action to address these banks soon is crucial.
- Insulating foams can be used as a "waste" source to generate electricity.
- Where it is economical to reclaim banks, standards and regulation may be applied. Where it is not, fiscal incentives are required. Most of the emissions over the next decade or two will arise from sources that are not currently economical to reclaim.
- The destruction of CFCs could cost $62 -$180 billion globally, so direct funding is unlikely. An alternative approach would be to use new carbon markets. For example, CFC destruction could count as carbon offsets in a cap and trade program.
- HFCs accounted for 1.8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007.
- Effects of substitute gases on energy efficiency should be considered because the total carbon footprint of appliances that use HFCs is about 4-5 times greater than direct emissions from the HFCs.
- Broadly consistent phase-out proposals for HFCs exist in the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454), and the recently introduced Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733). This phase-out may achieve 16-25 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent reduction versus the business as usual baseline in the United States, over the period 2012-2050.