Get on Board for the Climate: When Ammonia Smells Like Flowers

by Martha Walden 


One of the biggest climate-changing threats facing civilization flies under the radar for most people: refrigerants. Emissions from these man-made chemicals are so much more potent than carbon or methane that it boggles the mind. Just the array of acronyms that refer to them — CFC, HCFC, HFC — boggles the mind. Never mind the full names — you don’t want to know. 



Not long ago, the use of HFCs looked like a runaway train, as the world heats up and more and more cooling measures are needed. An international agreement was forged in 2016 to phase them out, but of course, Trump’s administration refused to ratify it. Miraculously, legislation was quarterbacked through Congress during the last month of his term that mandated an 85 percent reduction in the manufacturing of HFCs. Starting this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will establish HFC allowances for the federal cap and trade program.


This is good news but not as good as it sounds. The example of yesterday’s refrigerant, CFC, tells us so. That ozone-depleting chemical was banned in 1987. Thirty four years later, CFCs are reduced but still common. Manufacturing CFCs may be illegal, but using them is not. Each year approximately three times more CFCs are recycled than destroyed. The amount destroyed has dropped by half since 2012. Plus, most worryingly, CFC-11 is still illegally manufactured somewhere in south Asia, and the ozone layer over that area shows it. 

Despite the cautionary tale, the EPA is using the same approach to get rid of HFCs. They too can be endlessly recycled. Fifteen percent of the current supply can even be manufactured legally, so that amount may give cover to illegal manufacturing. Another similarity is that the owners of commercial refrigeration systems do not need to repair their equipment unless its leakage rate exceeds 20 percent annually. That’s a lot of permission for something that traps thousands of times more heat than CO2.

As with CFCs, carbon offsets will play a role in lowering the costs of compliance with the new regime. Under this system, polluters are required to pay for emissions reductions anywhere in the world in order to compensate for their own before they eventually clean up their own act. Theoretically anyway. Unintended consequences and ample room to game the system have made for slow, expensive progress. 

In summary, CFCs depleted the ozone, so the chemical industry begat HFCs, the world’s greatest globalwarmers. Undaunted by that serious oops, the chemical industry has now begat HFOs. I can hardly wait to see what those do. Old-fashioned refrigerants, such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and butane are making a comeback in the European Union and other parts of the world not as beholden to the chemical industry as the U.S. 

The refrigerants committee of 350 Humboldt has met with Air Resources Board and Senator McGuire’s staff to prod California to go farther than the EPA in its commitment to reduce the globalwarming threat of HFCs. One idea is an incentive program for converting to “natural” refrigerants. Yes, compared to man-made coolants, butane is natural, carbon dioxide is a good guy, and ammonia smells like flowers.