The world is beginning to care about climate change.
Increasing amounts of money, energy, and attention are being poured into this fight. But, for the most part,the focus is on a few core sustainable initiatives. Renewable energy takes the biggest share, but electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and land use are also beginning to attract attention and investment. These areas are important and we should continue investing in them.
But if you want to help address climate change, you can have a big impact by finding a smaller piece of the problem that no one else is working on. The best thing to work on might even be something you’ve never heard of before.
For me, that turned out to be refrigerant management.
Well-functioning refrigerators and ACs need to contain certain kinds of gas that are engineered to have very specific chemical properties. (Here’s a good article if you want to learn more). There are dozens of different kinds of gases that are used for this, but we can call them all “refrigerants” or “coolants” (You may have heard of Freon, which is a specific brand name).
They contribute about one billion tons of CO2-equivalent per year. If we think of them as a country, they would be the 6th largest emitter in the world! This is tied with Germany at 2% of global emissions. Another problem of about the same size is air travel, at 2.5% of global emissions.
When Project Drawdown rated the most 100 promising climate change mitigation approaches, refrigerant management came in at number one.
As you know, the main cause of climate change is that human society produces different gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. The most common one is carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, but other gases have similar effects. And some of these gases are much better at trapping heat, meaning worse for climate change.
For instance, refrigerants are a big problem because these gases have an extremely high Global Warming Potential (GWP). This is a measure of how much one kilo of gas contributes to climate change:
– Carbon dioxide (CO2) has a GWP of 1, we use it as a reference point;
– Methane has a GWP of about 26, which means one kilogram of methane is as bad as 26 kilograms of CO2;
– The refrigerants in common use in Cambodia have GWPs between 1300 and 2000!
To put this in perspective, when you burn one litre of gas in your car, you emit about 2.5 kilos of CO2 into the air. If you release into the atmosphere the refrigerants from only one household AC (usually about 0,5 kilos), it has the same impact on the climate as burning 400 litres of gasoline!
So let’s go deeper into this problem and see how we can solve it.
Refrigerants are contained within the fridge or AC when the device is working and can enter the atmosphere in a few ways:
One way or another, the gas reaches the atmosphere and starts to cause trouble.
It’s almost impossible to directly measure how much refrigerant is emitted from any specific country because the gas diffuses so quickly in the atmosphere. But using statistics on imports, we can make some estimates.
In 2019, Cambodia imported about 350,000 household cooling devices, for a total of 170 tons of refrigerant. It also imported about 600 tons of refrigerant in pure form, which is used to refill leaks. This will lead to about 1.5 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions.
Cambodia’s global gas emissions are about 10 million tons of CO2 per year, so 2019’s refrigerant imports are equal to 15% of the country’s total emissions! This is about the same as Cambodia’s gasoline usage each year.
Yes! There are two main things that the world can do to solve refrigerant emissions:
First, we need to find different refrigerants that don’t contribute to climate change. We also have to make sure that all new ACs and refrigerators use those new gases. The UN’s Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is calling for a reduction of high-GWP refrigerants to 10% of baseline by 2050. It also provides funding and assistance for countries to make this transition.
However, it has a major gap. Even if all nations sign the agreement and comply perfectly (which is unlikely), it will take effect slowly, especially in hot developing countries. And in those countries, “baseline” refrigerant usage is still several years away. For Cambodia, the baseline year is 2024, and for India 2028!
For large cooling systems, most emissions are from leakage. But for residential systems, end-of-life is a much bigger concern. We are currently focused on small devices because we believe they are even more neglected than the industrial and commercial installations.
One idea might be “make consumers aware and have them take action.” This is usually the first thing we try with environmental issues, but it’s unlikely to work in this case. Consumers deal with this problem rarely, and they don’t have a good way now to make sure the device is disposed of responsibly.
Another idea might be “make it illegal to emit refrigerant gases”. This can help: definitely if it’s illegal some people will try to follow the law. But this is extremely hard to enforce. There is no way to catch people who emit refrigerant from a device, and it’s easy for any scrapyard or technician to claim that the device was empty of refrigerant when they received it.
Instead, we believe that positive financial incentives are the best way to prevent these emissions, applied at existing centralization points.
Here in Cambodia, when a household decides they’re done with a refrigerator, it doesn’t go directly into a landfill. Instead, it usually goes to a second hand store, where a technician will try to repair it and resell it. If they are unable to do this, they will usually take it apart because different pieces of it are valuable. The compressor, condenser and evacuator can often be re-used to fix other devices. The metal tubing that circulates the coolant has value as scrap metal. So these technicians will take it apart, re-use what they can, and sell the rest to scrapyards.
This is the point where the refrigerant is emitted, so this is the best time to recover it!
Recoolit partners with these second hand shops. We make it worth their while not to emit the refrigerant. Once a “supplier” decides they are going to take a device apart, they set it aside for later. When they have a few devices that are ready, they give us a call and we dispatch a technician to go by their shop with a recovery machine. We pay the supplier for each device, and the gas gets pumped into a canister. Then the technician continues on their route to recover gas from more suppliers.
Finally, the recycled gas gets sold back out into the world.
Every kilogram of recycled gas that is sold has prevented one kilo of gas emissions. And if you remember our calculations before, that is the equivalent of burning about 800 litres of gasoline!
You can learn more on our website or just email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org