More than 90 percent of American homes have air-conditioners, which accounts for approximately 6 percent of all the country’s residential energy use and translates to about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide released every year. To save on energy consumption, one can turn off the AC units while not present in the room or increase the thermostat to a higher temperature so that the AC will not turn on as often. However, another aspect of air-conditioners that is not frequently talked about is the actual chemical compounds in AC systems that are responsible for keeping a room cool on a hot summer day. The compounds are called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and it’s a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
HFCs represent a small portion of total greenhouse gas emissions, but they trap thousands of times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Good news: If your air-conditioner is working properly, it won’t release HFCs into the atmosphere. Some HFCs are released during the manufacturing process, if your air-conditioner or refrigerator has a leak, or when you throw a unit away, possibly causing some molecules to escape, especially if it’s disposed of improperly (Here’s some guidance on proper disposal).
Last month representatives from nearly 200 countries (the same countries who negotiated the Paris agreement) began to work on a new environment agreement to regulate the use of HFCs.
Any deal reached in these talks would be an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which phased out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) only a few years after scientists published results showing the harm those chemicals were doing to the ozone layer.
The United States, which already has some regulations in place to limit HFCs, wants to begin phasing out production and use in 2019 in developed countries, and in 2021 in developing countries, though some developing countries, like India, would prefer a longer time-frame — beginning in 15 years. These restrictions, they say, would place an unfair economic burden on their citizens, especially as air-conditioning use is expected to skyrocket there in the next few decades.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency said that because another chemical compound, HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), are still commonly used in the developing world, it would be better if they skipped ahead to the more environmentally-friendly replacements, rather than setting up a whole economy based on HFCs and then making the switch. HCFCs are not currently widely used in the United States and production and import here were largely freezed last year.
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