Kigali Agreement Sets International HFC Phase-Out Schedule

More than 170 nations meeting October in Kigali, Rwanda, adopted a landmark agreement to incorporate a mandatory phase-down schedule for hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants.

As the world’s leading advocate for the use of ammonia and other natural refrigerants, the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration has long promoted the environmental benefits of natural refrigerants, and is positioned to become a major participant in the globalization of environmentally safe and energy efficient refrigeration systems.

The global accord reached in Kigali amends the 1987 Montreal Protocol and establishes a legally binding schedule for participating countries to cap and phase down the use of HFCs in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives. The phase-down in the United States and the European Union will begin in 2019, with most developing countries following suit between 2024 and 2028. By 2050, this reduction in HFC emissions will be equal to 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which is projected to avoid approximately one degree Fahrenheit of global climate change.

“The effort to include HFCs with the Montreal Protocol has been talked about for a number of years,” said Lowell Randel, director of government relations for IIAR. “It’s encouraging to see the agreement that was put in place in Kigali that takes this next step forward. From a natural refrigerant standpoint it is important, because as we see companies and facilities transition away from HFCs, the natural refrigerants will be one of the first places they stop. The Kigali agreement is a game changer as far as moving from synthetic to natural refrigerants.”

Lambert Kuijpers, co-chair of the United Nations Environment Program’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel, said the Kigali accord is “a significant step forward,” but he added, only “in so far that it has set freezes in consumption and production in specific years for developed and developing countries, which means that there will be no unlimited growth in certain developing countries until 2050.

“It will not have a significant short-term impact on high GWP [global warming potential] HFC consumption, since developed countries have their national or regional regulations on high GWP HFCs, and the freeze for developing countries is still eight to 12 years away,” Kuijpers said. “It will become significant for countries that are gradually transitioning to low GWP HFCs in particular, probably much faster than the schedules that have been adopted.”

The 1987 Montreal Protocol, designed to protect the earth’s ozone layer, banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) through a timeline phase-out schedule. As a result of the CFC refrigerant phaseout, many varieties of HFC refrigerants were developed. But HFC refrigerants, while ozone-friendly, trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. The GWP of HFC gases is considered to be several thousand times greater than carbon dioxide.

The shift away from HFC refrigerants is expected to accelerate the use of natural refrigerants with zero-to-low ozone depletion and global warming potentials. “All countries have committed to cut the production and consumption of HFCs by 80 to 85 percent,” EPA spokesperson Melissa Harrison said. “This is equivalent to avoiding more than a decade of greenhouse gas emissions from the entire U.S. economy.”

The European Union banned the use of HFCs in automobiles several years ago, while numerous global food and beverage suppliers have moved away from using HFCs in refrigerated vending machines.

“I think there is an opportunity for natural refrigerants to be considered a really strong option,” said IIAR president, Dave Rule. “Ammonia, which has zero global warming potential, is a natural refrigerant where they know that it won’t be impacted down the road by the Montreal Protocol, the Kigali agreement or changes to the [EPA’s] SNAP program.”

The trend toward small charge and packaged systems will also benefit the ammonia industry, Randel said. “As people take HFCs off-line, they will be deciding where to go next,” he said. “If they turn to another synthetic, there is a concern that it might end up on the list of refrigerants that will be phased down or phased out. In the past, some people might have been more hesitant to adopt ammonia because of the regulatory burdens, but with the trend toward smaller charge and packaged systems, coupled with moving away from HFCs, it leads people to see ammonia as a viable option. End users can use ammonia with a lower charge and not have as high a regulatory burden. That combination points to a positive scenario for ammonia in the long term.”

Chemical companies that manufacture refrigerants have been developing low ODP (ozone depletion potential) and low GWP alternatives to HFCs in anticipation of mandated HFC phase-outs. However, natural refrigerant alternatives such as ammonia, CO2 and hydrocarbons are widely available and have a proven track record of safety, energy efficiency and environmentally friendliness. In fact, only ammonia has zero ODP and GWP.

“As countries begin to phase down their use of HFCs across a range of sectors, it will be important to identify more sustainable alternatives, which could include ammonia for specific end-uses,” Harrison said.

“We anticipate seeing innovative companies introduce new products for applications where ozone-depleting substances and high-global warming potential HFCs were traditionally used.”