Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air conditioners and are released primarily at the end of the life-span of these products. The result is an accumulation of substances in these applications which forms a previously unrecognized additional risk for climate change.

The contribution of HFCs to climate change is currently less than 1 percent, but this could increase to more than 10 percent in 2050. This is the conclusion of an article by Guus Velders of RIVM in the scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Alternatives for ozone-later-depleting substances

HFCs are now used in cooling and air-conditioning systems, for the manufacture of foam products and in aerosols, in place of the ozone-layer-depleting substances (CFCs en HCFCs) that were formerly used. The use of CFCs has been prohibited worldwide since 2010, and the use of HCFCs must also decrease in the coming years as a result of measures arising from the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to protect the ozone layer signed in 1987.

Most ozone-layer-depleting substances are also greenhouse gases, so a reduction in their use will lead to limitation of the greenhouse effect. HFCs, conversely, do not affect the ozone layer but do contribute to the greenhouse effect. Velders’ article indicates that in assessing the effect of HFCs on the climate we should look not only at anticipated emission in the coming years but also at the ‘banks’ of these substances accumulating in refrigerators and air conditioners.

The HFCs accumulated in refrigerators and air conditioners can be destroyed, but this would require worldwide collection of these appliances. It would be easier to prevent the accumulation of a large store by switching to the use of other substances and technologies for refrigerators and air conditioners now, while the use of HFCs is still limited.

International agreements

In 2011 more than 100 countries signed an agreement in which they declared that they want to include HFCs in the Montreal protocol in order to further drive back their use. Last year China, the USA and leaders of the G20 announced that they support these measures. The European Parliament voted in favour of a revision of the EU European Union (European Union) F-gas Regulation in March 2014 to limit the use of HFCs and formal approval by the European Council took place in April. The new Regulation will now come into force in early 2015.