Commentary

Treaty Will Make AC Units Costly with No Benefit to Environment

One White House staffing issue may actually be great news for anyone who uses air conditioning or heating in their home or car.

The recent resignation of Trump administration energy adviser George David Banks means the loss of one of the strongest advocates for the U.S. to go along with much of the world in phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbon HFC-134a, the most popular commercial heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) refrigerant.

Banks called for the U.S. to adopt the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete stratospheric ozone.

Although the U.S. is a signatory to the Montreal Agreement, it isn’t bound to uphold the 2016 Kigali Amendment, a separate protocol, which gradually ends the usage of HFC-134a on the grounds that it would mitigate some global warming. Kigali has nothing to do with stratospheric ozone.

The Kigali Amendment is an inappropriate protocol purporting to stop global warming that was grafted onto a stratospheric ozone treaty.

Only the Senate can make this decision, but it should use this opportunity to take a stand against the Kigali Amendment, because it would needlessly raise the cost of HVAC while doing little to protect the environment.

HFCs, while miniscule in concentrations, are very potent greenhouse gases, and one study argues that banning them would prevent 0.35 to 0.5 degrees of warming by 2100.

But Andrew Jones, who runs Climate Interactive, a popular site that estimates the effects of various policies, toldScience magazine, “I’m not really buying it,” referring to the 0.5-degree Celsius estimate.

He noted that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the effect to be closer to the 0.1-degree figure. The study cited by Kigali proponents is an outlier among much lower estimates.

HFCs do no significant harm to stratospheric ozone and are the most recent in a series of widely-deployed refrigerants. Through the 1950s, ammonia was the go-to chemical used for HVAC, but it also had a way of exploding into catastrophic and fatal residential fires.

Stable chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) replaced them. They are so stable that when leaked they survive all the way to the stratosphere, where the molecule is broken down, releasing highly reactive chlorine that destroys stratospheric ozone.

CFCs were then replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) which ate less ozone, with one-third of the chlorine per molecule. That was still too much for critics, so that’s when the HFCs came into the picture. They have no chlorine.

There are many possible replacements for HFC-134a, and among them are hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), which are actually a bit more efficient at cooling than their predecessor and don’t seem to require major changes in compressor hardware. If the world is in a rush to ban the HFCs, HFOs are likely the refrigerant of choice.

The problem is they’re expensive. Two companies, Honeywell and Dupont, hold most of the patents for HFO refrigerants they have branded as Solstice and Opteon; that makes them much more pricey. It’s rumored that the two companies will soon go on an advertising blitz to tout the benefits of their substitutes for HFC-134A and counteract the high price.

HFC-134a, out of patent and made in China, goes for a bit under $7 per pound. Solstice costs $71. A 3500-square-foot house’s heat pump will require approximately 15 pounds, or $105 worth of HFC-134a, but a whopping $1,056 worth of Solstice, and that’s without installer markup. A similar ratio applies to the three pounds that a car air conditioner uses.

Our friends in the EU have already mandated the elimination of HFCs for car air conditioners. Yet, Daimler stopped using the new HFO because under certain conditions (a severe head-on collision), it can lead to an aggressive fire.

It is now selling its E-class Mercedes with HFC-134a, and a legal fight has broken out over its sale. Volkswagen prefers inert carbon dioxide (CO2) as a refrigerant, and while it must be run at a much higher temperature than existing predecessors, the CO2 isn’t going to catch fire.

There may be an interesting co-benefit of using carbon dioxide. Manufacturers in Norway have devised a way to use waste heat to warm water. That’s a pretty nifty two-fer in the household appliance business.

Forcing Kigali down the world’s throat will stampede the cooling industry into very expensive HFOs. We’ll be forced to buy their more expensive air conditioners because they’re supposedly good for the planet, but the mainstream numbers show an undetectably low mitigation of global warming.

All this of course is very good for DuPont and Honeywell, but not so for your wallet or the planet. Might we be hindering the development of cheaper alternatives like carbon dioxide compressors that can heat water while cooling the air?

Kigali is an inappropriate protocol purporting to stop global warming that was grafted onto a stratospheric ozone treaty.

Putting that legal faux-pas aside, does the Trump administration and two-thirds of the Senate really want to raise the price of a new heat pump by more than $1,000 for a virtually unmeasurable impact on global warming?

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.