It is a well-known fact that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary driver of climate change. CO2 emissions that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere remain for hundreds of years, and strategies to reduce them are vital to the future of the planet. However, the reduction of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) is just as important, as their emissions account for 40 percent of global warming. These “super pollutants,” including black carbon (soot), methane, and most hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), can cause devastating harm to vulnerable regions if they remain unchecked. HFCs are 10,000 times more potent than CO2, and in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane can trap 86 times more heat than CO2. (A fact sheet concerning the various effects of these greenhouse gases (GHGs) can be found here).

At a September 16 meeting at the White House, the Obama Administration announced a collaboration with industry leaders to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the goals in the President’s Climate Action Plan. At the White House meeting, The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy announced that its members support an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, and it pledged to take action and support policies to reduce global HFC emissions by 80 percent by 2050 relative to current emissions. The Alliance represents chemical manufacturers that produce 95 percent of the HFCs in the United States and companies that use HFCs to make a variety of products, from aerosols and foam insulation to air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment.

In addition, major companies announced voluntary commitments to introduce new low- global warming potential (GWP) compounds and technologies to replace the high-GWP products currently in use and to continue to improve energy efficiency. Companies like Coca Cola, DuPont, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Thermal King, and Unilever announced partnerships with the administration to invest in the next generation of safer HFC alternatives, and to incorporate climate-friendly refrigerants into their production processes.

The announcements marked the 27th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, considered to be the best proof that international agreements on environmental action can work and benefit businesses and the economy as well as people and the environment.

“While the Montreal Protocol has achieved great success providing climate protection thus far, finishing the HFC amendment will avoid the equivalent of between 100 and 200 billion tons of CO2 by 2050, and avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century,” said Dr. Stephen O. Andersen, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) liaison to the Department of Defense (DOD) for climate and ozone, and former co-chair of the Technology & Economic Assessment Panel of the Montreal Protocol.

Similar efforts are being made by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC) was launched in 2012 to improve scientific understanding, promote best practices, and enhance and develop emissions reduction strategies at the national and regional levels. Twenty-seven countries and 22 additional non-state partners have since joined the Coalition, and the G8 has pledged its support. (More information can be found here). Although the United States is seeking to encourage other nations to follow suit with similar regulations on HFCs, this may prove difficult for some nations like India, whose senior environmental official, Sushil Kumar, told reporters in the past, “We don’t have any alternative technology.” On a more positive note, however, India’s newly elected president, Narendra Modi, in a meeting with President Obama on September 30, pledged India’s cooperation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Advances in technology may someday make refrigerants obsolete, at least in some applications. For example, an R&D partnership between the Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office and General Electric has achieved an important milestone with a refrigerator that works without refrigerants -- i.e., cools without vapor compression -- by utilizing the magnetocaloric effect. The researchers anticipate further progress in the efficiency and commercial application of “magnetic cooling” in A/C equipment and refrigerators, which will make buildings much more energy efficient and climate-friendly.

Public-private partnerships are driving investment in climate-friendly refrigerant and air conditioning technologies. The U.S. Department of Energy announced new funding for research & development (R&D) to accelerate the availability of technology that can save energy while reducing emissions. Emerson Climate Technologies, a global manufacturer of heating, cooling, and refrigeration technology, is investing nearly two-thirds of its R&D resources for energy efficient and low-GWP products. "Environmental stewardship is a hallmark of our industry," said Stephen Yurek, President of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute. "This initiative furthers our commitment to providing for the health, safety, and comfort of people around the world in the most responsible way possible.”

In addition, new executive actions have called on federal managers to upgrade federal buildings to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. EESI’s Ellen Vaughan notes that the federal government has an opportunity to lead by example. "High-performance procurement standards for building products and for architecture, engineering, and contracting services will help ensure that government buildings demonstrate best practices in design, construction, operation, and life-cycle cost effectiveness and are a sound investment of taxpayers’ dollars.” Vaughan added, “High-performance buildings and homes could be an enormous opportunity for private investors as well, but first we need to bring outdated policies and mortgage underwriting standards into the modern age.”

Climate-friendly refrigerants for A/C systems and refrigerators (and, eventually, “magnetic cooling” technology that eliminates the need for refrigerant entirely), non-HFC foam insulation, and other energy efficient, zero-emission building materials, products, and technologies are essential to creating high-performance homes and buildings. This is critical, as more than 40 percent of U.S. energy use goes to lighting, heating, cooling and operating buildings, which represents 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Improved building performance means greater affordability, health, safety, and resale value—it’s not just about protecting the environment. And many building professionals already know how to create buildings that improve our lives and make communities more sustainable and resilient. Informed consumers and policymakers are beginning to understand the significance of the building sector in terms of its impact on the environment, the economy, and society, and to realize that they have the power to demand better quality, performance and investment value.


Author: Carlos Villacis