BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
|A modern refrigerator|
The world now stands at risk of further depleting the ozone layer through the use of new fridges, air conditioners, fire-fighting equipment, insulation foams and others, as it still struggles with its fight against climate change.
This is because, the chemicals, collectively known as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are becoming popular as replacements for the older group – Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) phased-out to protect the ozone layer - the earth’s high flying shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sun’s ultra violet rays, have also been found to be powerful greenhouse gases.
A report launched Monday, November 21, 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), projects that by year 2050 HFCs could be responsible for emissions equivalent to 3.5 to 8.8 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2eq), which is comparable to total current annual emissions from transport, estimated at around 6-7 Gt annually.
Commenting on the new report’s finding, Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said although the more than 20 year-old international effort to save the ozone layer ranks among the most successful examples of cooperation and collaboration among nations with the phasing out globally in 2010 of the original chemicals known as CFCs, there appears to be a new challenge.
“A new challenge is rapidly emerging as countries move ahead on HCFCs and that is HFCs. While these ‘replacements for the replacement’ chemicals cause near zero damage to the ozone layer, they are powerful greenhouse gases in their own right,” he said.
Achim Steiner however said “The good news is that alternatives exist alongside technological solutions according to this international study, and while assessing the absolute benefits from switching needs further scientific refinement, there is enough compelling evidence to begin moving away from the most powerful HFCs today.”
The new report—HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer, is the first of three reports to be launched this week in Bali, Indonesia, at the 23rd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol by UNEP, in the run up to the UN Climate Convention meeting in Durban, South Africa.
A range of alternatives recommended by the report that could ensure that the impact of HFCs remains small and equal to today’s impacts, include alternative methods and processes, which range from improved building design that reduces or avoids the need for air conditioners to fibre, rather than foam insulation materials.
It also suggests the use of Non-HFC substances, stating that there are already commercially available alternatives that range from ammonia to dimethyl ether for use in foams, refrigeration and fire protection systems.
Other ways of combating the developing phenomenon, the report says, is by using climate-friendly HFCs, adding, “some HFCs have shorter life-times in the atmosphere of months rather than years. Some of these are being introduced such as HFC 1234ze in foams and HFC-1234yf for mobile air-conditioners.”
The report points out too, that with further technical developments backed by standards, investment incentives and training for technicians and workers, the introduction of alternatives to climate-damaging HFCs could be accelerated and fast-tracked.
UNEP’s new report states though, that the contribution of HFCs to climate forcing is currently less than one per cent of all greenhouse gases.
It however warns that the levels of HFCs are rising as they replace HCFCs such as HFC 134a, the most popular type, which has increased in the atmosphere by about 10 per cent per year since 2006.
|Though phased out, used old CFC fridges are still common in Ghana|
Further, the report projects the consumption of HFCs to exceed the peak consumption levels in the 1980s of the old, now fully phased-out CFCs, due to rising demand in emerging economies and a global population now above seven billion.
According to the UNEP study, although the phase-out and phase-down of CFCs and HCFCs since the late 1980s has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by around 8 Gt C02eq annually and reduced damage to the ozone layer, without action, the increasing use of HFCs could add annual greenhouse gas emissions of between 3.5 and 8.8 Gt C02 eq by 2050, and thus undo the large climate benefits scored by the phase out of CFCs and HCFCs since the late 1980s.
HFCs are, along with CO2, methane and other gases, controlled under the UN’s Framework Convention for Combating Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, while measures to protect the ozone layer are carried out under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
UNEP’s Executive Director thus opines; “Cooperative action between these treaties may be the key to fast action on HFCs, assisting to maintain momentum on recovering the ozone layer while simultaneously reducing risks of accelerated climate change.”
The second report, Bridging the Gap: An Assessment, which outlines the gap between the commitments and pledges of countries versus where emissions need to be by around 2020 in order to keep a global temperature rise under 2 Degrees Celsius was launched on 23 November 23, 2011, in London, in collaboration with international climate modelling centres.
A report that outlines a package of 16 measures which could reduce global warming, avoid millions of premature deaths and reduce global crop yield losses by tackling black carbon, methane and ground-level ozone - substances known as short-term climate forcers, will also be launched on Friday November 25, 2011 by UNEP in collaboration with researchers.