It was an unqualified win for the environment: The phase-out of ozone depleting gases used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners the world over.
But in the last generation, their celebrated replacement, while not ozone-damaging, has also turned out to be deeply harmful to the environment. Called hydrofluorocarbons, they are potent greenhouse gases and can persist for years in the environment. Growing in popularity, some projections say HFCs could account for 19 percent of heat-trapping emissions by 2050.
But there is a natural solution – one that was all but ignored by businesses until an unlikely alliance was forged among environmentalists and industry, according to the Harvard Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program that recently chose the consortium for a prestigious award.
The companies – Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Unilever, and PepsiCo – and Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program have worked in recent years to substitute HFCs with natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons.
Called Refrigerants, Naturally!, the group works to develop technologies that are safe, reliable, affordable, and energy efficient. Coca Cola, which is already using the natural gases in a growing number of new refrigeration units, has pledged to ensure all new refrigeration equipment will have the natural refrigerants by 2015.
The soft drink giant began working with Greenpeace after the environmental group lobbied companies during the much advertised “green” 2000 Sydney Olympics that Coca Cola and McDonald’s sponsored.
“These are the worst greenhouse gases you never heard of,’’ said Amy Larkin, director of solutions for Greenpeace.
Corporations began looking for alternatives but found few. In 2004, Refrigerants, Naturally! was launched by McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Unilever to encourage manufacturers to make products using non-HFC gases and to share technology. Today, the group estimates hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions have been prevented from entering the atmosphere because of the effort. The consortium began with a handful of companies and now has won commitments from 400 to begin phasing out HFCs.
“We have 10 million pieces of equipment, we buy a million units a year,” said Jeff Seabright, vice president, Environment and Water Resources for
Coca Cola Co. He said the use of natural refrigerants is slightly more expensive but as more companies use them, he expects cost to be competitive with HFCs within a few years.
The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, a chemical industry trade group, has said HFCs are far less harmful to the environment than their precursors. However, in an email, executive director Dave Stirpe cqsaid the Alliance does support a "phase-down" but not a phase-out.
He said a phase-out could "leave sectors without safe, energy efficient and technically and economically feasible alternatives....We DO recognize the impact of HFCs on the climate."
The award, called the Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership, is given out every two years to an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality.
Henry Lee, director of Harvard’s Environment and Natural Resources program said the winning program was rigorously examined. It makes a creative and significant contribution to improving the environment, he said, “and at a time we are having great difficulty getting climate change passed, here is a project that has made a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.”
This item has been amended since its original post.
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