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EPA workers prepare to remove freon, compressor oil, mercury switches, and rotten food from refrigerators and other "white goods" at the Katrina Dumpsite on October 19, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

EPA workers prepare to remove freon, compressor oil, mercury switches, and rotten food from refrigerators and other "white goods" at the Katrina Dumpsite on October 19, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Removing the hazardous materials helps minimize soil and groundwater contamination and prevents highly potent greenhouse gases from leaking into the atmosphere.

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Refrigerants

Call to action:

Manage leakage and disposal of fluorinated gases (F-gases) used as refrigerants and replace them with alternative cooling technologies.

Refrigerants used in cooling systems are one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Most common are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), synthetic gases adopted in the 1990s as a replacement for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. Found in common appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners, the warming impact of fluorinated refrigerants can be hundreds to thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide. The demand for cooling technologies is surging around the world as populations grow and temperatures rise. The proper disposal of HFCs and their replacement with climate-friendly alternative refrigerants has the potential to have a significant positive effect. The 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol outlines the global phasedown of damaging HFCs and their safe disposal. If fully implemented, these actions could prevent warming of up to half a degree Celsius this century. Holding governments and corporations accountable is essential. Individuals can also accelerate marketplace adoption of climate-friendlier refrigerants. 

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the history and science of fluorinated gases (F-gases) and their effect on the climate. The four types of F-gases are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorinated carbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). All are laboratory-created gases with strong Global Warming Potential (GWP), but only HFCs are used as refrigerants. F-gases are used in a wide range of industrial, commercial, residential, and electrical applications, and some persist longer in the atmosphere than any other greenhouse gas.

Learn how fluorinated refrigerants can be phased out as part of the transition to low-global warming potential (GWP) alternatives. Emissions from refrigerants could be reduced by lowering demand, which is unlikely considering that use increases as populations grow and air conditioners become more necessary in rising temperatures. Instead, the focus has been on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) with low-GWP alternatives. Companies have been developing next-generation refrigerants, including hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and turning back to chemicals that were used before synthetic refrigerants hit the market. These are called hydrocarbons or natural refrigerants, as they are found in nature. They include ammonia, propane, and carbon dioxide.

  • The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is a major international treaty that went into effect in 2019 with the goal of cutting HFCs by more than 80 percent over three decades. Thus far, 151 states have committed to its measures, which include replacing HFCs with low-GWP alternatives, controlling leakage, and ensuring proper disposal and destruction.
  • Since the adoption of the Kigali agreement, researchers have been working to develop new cooling technologies, including more efficient appliances that use less energy and refrigerant gas. Coupling energy efficiency with the HFC phasedown can significantly increase the climate benefits of the Kigali Amendment.
  • Barriers to natural refrigerant adoption include a shortage of workforce training and a lack of performance data. There is also the high up-front cost of transitioning. Companies can’t simply switch out natural refrigerants into existing systems; the whole system of pipes and heat transfer must be rebuilt, so government support for the shift is key (see Governance).

Properly maintain, service, and dispose of your cooling appliances to minimize leakage of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Nearly 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions generated by HFCs are caused by end-of-life leaking, making the proper maintenance and disposal of appliances an essential action. Replace air conditioners, freezers, and refrigerators at the end of their expected life cycle (twelve to twenty years) rather than waiting for them to break down. Dispose of them properly so that they can be recovered, recycled, and destroyed. You can purchase a home refrigerant leak detector for as little as twenty-three dollars. This video describes how to check for a refrigerant leak in an appliance or cooling system. HFCs have a similar odor to gasoline or acetone, the main ingredient in many nail polish removers, so call a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) technician if you smell that near a cooling appliance. It is illegal in many countries to attempt the repair yourself.

  • Annual inspections of your air-conditioning system can reduce costs by replacing old components rather than replacing an entire unit. HVAC specialists can also safely change or top off refrigerants and fix leaks for optimal performance and to avoid releasing powerful greenhouse gases.
  • Here’s a guide for homeowners about how to safely dispose of your old fridge or air conditioner and have the Freon removed by a qualified technician to avoid leaks.
  • In the United States, the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program helps homeowners connect with the proper avenues for getting rid of old cooling appliances.
  • You may be able to donate your working appliances to a local charity or trade them in at a big-box store when buying a new one.

Choose energy-efficient cooling appliances that use climate-friendly refrigerants. In the U.S., emissions from residential air-conditioning units make up about a third of annual hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions. Consumers can play an important role in decreasing the demand for HFCs by purchasing refrigerators and air conditioners that use climate-friendly (low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants that are halogen-free. Those with high energy efficiency will have lower operating costs, prevent food spoilage and waste, and need less refrigerant gas. These appliances are now available at competitive prices at local retailers.

Raise awareness of and promote climate-friendly refrigerants and cooling technologies. The role of refrigerants in climate change is underappreciated. Naturally Cool is a program organized by the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC). It has developed to expand awareness and support for refrigerant management as a climate solution. You can follow the movement on LinkedIn and X and share posts with your network.

  • Submit a letter to the editor, post on social media, or write an article about this issue. Here and here are examples of pieces published on Medium about refrigerant management as a climate solution, and this is a letter to the editor on the topic.

Support an action or organization that promotes the safe disposal of refrigerants and the transition to climate-friendly cooling. Donate to initiatives to collect high-impact refrigerants and safely dispose of them. Efforts are being made through numerous local organizations and mission-based companies such as Tradewater to find and manage these pollutants in countries from the Dominican Republic to Ghana

Petition supermarkets to address the issue of harmful refrigerants and shop at climate-friendly supermarkets. Less than 2 percent of the grocery stores in the U.S. are using natural refrigerants. A world map of supermarkets free of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is available through the Climate-Friendly Supermarkets site, where you can become a citizen investigator and contribute data on your local store. Supermarkets are being asked to commit to using HFC-free systems in new locations, publishing timelines to phase them out completely, rapidly repairing leaks, making annual leak rates public, and ensuring proper disposal of refrigerants. Green America is running a campaign around urging large U.S. grocery store chains to cut HFC emissions with letters and petitions you can sign here

Pressure your government on this issue. Demand that governments accelerate the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and meet or exceed commitments made by international agreement in the Kigali treaty. Push legislators to incentivize climate-friendly refrigerants, fast-track innovative technologies, and support workforce training programs. See more details on these approaches below under Governance.

Groups

Investors

Invest in companies and start-ups reclaiming HFCs and developing climate-friendly cooling technologies. The industry strongly needs innovation to build appliances that accommodate non-HFC refrigerants and finance the transition away from HFCs.

Support research and development initiatives focused on alternative refrigerants and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) management. Monitor and evaluate the performance and impact of your investments on HFC emissions reduction. 

  • Sponsor competitions, such as the Global Cooling Prize, have facilitated the development of two technologies that deliver residential cooling with five times lower climate impact than conventional systems.

Students

Start or join a group at your school or university to address refrigerant management and educate others about the issue. Student-led organizations can publish buying, maintenance, recycling, and disposal guides on college campuses where mini-fridges are prevalent in dorm rooms.  

  • At ten University of California campuses, refrigerant management is part of the Cool Campus Challenge, where students can sign up to take action to reduce their college’s carbon footprint and see measurable results of their efforts in lowered emissions.

Educators

Teach students about the climate impact of cooling and the development of alternative refrigerants. Incorporate information about hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and their environmental impact into curricula and encourage students to share it with their families and take action where possible. Educators can also share emerging innovations in cooling technologies with students (some are included in this Clean Energy Technology Guide) and enter design competitions such as this one sponsored by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Inventors

Develop climate-friendly cooling technologies. Support efforts to move away from vapor compression systems that require refrigerant gases. One potential solution is electrocaloric cooling, relying on the electrocaloric effect, in which certain materials change temperature when an electric field is applied.

Companies

If your company or its supply chain utilizes conventional refrigerants, encourage the switch to climate-friendly alternatives. Businesses and individuals can sign this pledge to buy products that are energy efficient and don’t contain high global warming potential (GWP) gases.

  • Look for local government programs that support and fund the refrigerant transition, such as the CoolCalifornia Small Business Awards.
  • The Catalytic Coalition was developed to support companies that are prioritizing responsible refrigerant management and the transition to climate-friendly cooling in their business models.
  • This Refrigerant Transition Hub helps retailers navigate toward climate-friendly cooling technologies.  
  • Companies such as Hill Phoenix and Johnson Controls can consult with and assist companies in creating a refrigerant compliance plan.
  • This report provides information about natural refrigerant options and case studies on their use in Australia.

Develop and manufacture climate-friendly and energy-efficient cooling technologies. Encourage research and innovation in the field of climate-friendly cooling technologies. Several companies leading the way are listed in this article.

Implement proper handling and disposal procedures for equipment containing fluorinated refrigerants and prevent leaking. Here is a fact sheet about how to do this according to current U.S. regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Training for technicians who work with cooling systems on the safe and efficient handling of HFCs is mandatory in most countries. More information about certification in the U.S. is available here.  
  • Train employees on the use of alternative refrigerants. The Cool Training offered by the Green Cooling Initiative includes e-learning and hands-on programs on the safe use and handling of natural refrigerants, is free of charge and is available in multiple languages.
  • Limit leakage of refrigerants. Leak detection can be performed manually using soap bubbles, ultraviolet dye, or electronically controlled systems with infrared detectors or heated diodes.

Collaborate across sectors with other companies and organizations to promote the adoption of climate-friendly cooling technologies. In the U.S., a government-funded laboratory and leading companies in the building equipment industry are collaborating to develop climate-friendly refrigerants. The annual Sustainable Refrigeration Summit, hosted by the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, brings together stakeholders from the commercial refrigeration, policy, energy, and environmental sectors to solve the puzzle of sustainable refrigeration in supermarkets.

Utility companies: provide incentives for the transition to climate-friendly cooling. U.S. utilities have offered several HVAC incentive programs; here is a list of some available in Washington State. Incentive programs led by California utility companies include the Custom Performance Program in Los Angeles, the Natural Refrigerant Incentive Program in Sacramento, and Pacific Gas & Electric’s Replacement Incentive Program.

Governance

Ensure timely implementation and enforcement of the Kigali Amendment. Advocate for policies and regulations that promote the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and the adoption of alternative refrigerants. World Refrigeration Day is an international awareness campaign.

Provide policy support and guidance for the transition to climate-friendly refrigerants and technologies. This can include workforce training, developing standards, labeling, subsidies, bans, or taxes. Where appropriate, incorporate refrigerant management into the development of a National Cooling Action Plan, such as the ones released in 2023 by Cambodia and South Africa.

Cooperate with other countries and stakeholders to share best practices and experiences on hydrofluorocarbon management and alternatives. According to this Cooling Emissions and Policy Synthesis Report, coordinated international action on energy-efficient, climate-friendly cooling could avoid as much as 460 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next four decades.

Ban technologies and appliances that use fluorinated gases. This is happening nation by nation in accordance with their Kigali Amendment compliance plans. Officials can also push for F-gases to be banned in electrical infrastructure, where they have commonly been used, and invest in alternative products. They can also ban the manufacture and importation of appliances that contain them, which is currently the European Union’s policy.

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