Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Improving Air Conditioner Efficiency Could Avoid Up To 100 Billion Tonnes of CO2

Parallel phase down of HFC refrigerants more than doubles total mitigation

Dual strategy critical for avoiding 2°C barrier

Paris, France, 20 July 2015 – Improving the energy efficiency of room air conditioners to the level of efficient units already on the market can provide climate mitigation up to 100 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050, a substantial part of the mitigation needed to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C above pre-Industrial levels, pegged by many scientists and policy makers as the upper temperature limit for preventing potentially irreversible and catastrophic impacts, including punishing heat waves, prolonged droughts, massive floods, more frequent super-storms, and destructive sea-level rise.

Improving efficiency of air conditioners could avoid an estimated ~25 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2030, ~32.5 billion tonnes in 2040, and ~40 billion tonnes in 2050, for a cumulative savings up to 97.5 billion tonnes of CO2, according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California, who note that there are always some uncertainties associated with such projections. The researchers calculate that the savings in peak demand could be equal to 500-1200 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, which would avoid (or free up for other uses), an amount of electricity equal to the production from between 1,000 and 2,500 medium-sized (500 MW) peak-load power plants by 2050.

The final draft report by Nihar Shah, Max Wei, Virginie Letschert, and Amol Phadke will be released for tomorrow as Benefits of Leapfrogging to Super-efficiency and Low Global Warming Potential Refrigerants in Air Conditioning. (The attached table from the final draft report shows the estimated number of avoided power plants in 2030 and 2050 for select countries, including China, India, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.)

“Improving energy efficiency of air conditioners can at least double the mitigation from phasing down the refrigerant known as HFCs, as most Parties to the Montreal Protocol are eager to do through an amendment this year,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.  “The proposed HFC amendment would avoid the equivalent of another 100 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050, and perhaps much more, and would avoid more than 0.5°C of warming by end of century.”

“Leapfrogging over HFCs into climate-friendly alternatives during the ongoing phaseout of HCFCs under the Montreal Protocol would add an additional 39 to 64 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent; this could bring the total mitigation up to 250 to 300 billion tonnes CO2-equivalent by 2050 from a dual strategy to phase down HFCs while improving air conditioning efficiency,” Zaelke added.

“Past phase outs of refrigerants under the Montreal Protocol have catalyzed improvements in appliance energy efficiency on the order of 30 to 60%,” Zaelke said. “Parallel efforts to set efficiency standards and to ban imports of inferior air conditioners could ensure that efficiency was improved even faster.”

“Efficient air conditioners are commercially available today, and can save money for consumers by substantially lowering their operating costs,” said Dr. Nihar Shah, the lead author of the report.  “Our calculations take into account that there will be some rebound effect from efficiency improvements, as some users will use their air conditioners more when they are cheaper to operate.  Even with this, the climate and cost benefits are substantial.”

The Montreal Protocol, widely recognized as the world’s most effective environmental treaty, has phased out 98% of the production and consumption of CFCs and nearly 100 other chemicals that both destroy stratospheric ozone and warm the climate, successfully putting the stratospheric ozone layer on the path to recovery by mid-century.

Five similar proposals have been submitted by a total of 95 Parties to the Montreal Protocol to amend the treaty to phase down the upstream production and consumption of HFCs (leaving the accounting and reporting of the downstream emissions in the UN climate regime). The 95 Parties include a coalition of island States let by the Federated States of Micronesia and the Philippines, the Africa Group of 55 Parties, the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the EU-28, and India.

Many additional Parties support the HFC phase down, including China, where President Xi reached an agreement with U.S. President Obama to phase down the HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. LBNL calculates that improving air conditioner efficiency in China could reduce peak demand by between 130-300 GW by 2030 and between 150 and 360 GW by 2050, avoiding (or freeing up for other uses) electricity generation capacity of up to 620 medium-sized power plants by 2030, and up to 720 by 2050.

India’s Prime Minister Modi and President Obama also agreed to support the phase down through the Montreal Protocol. LBNL calculates that India can reduce peak demand by between 28 and 66 GW by 2030 and between 110 and 250 GW by 2050, avoiding (or freeing up for other uses) electricity generation capacity of up to 130 medium-sized peak-load power plants by 2030, and up to 510 medium sized peak-load power plants by 2050.

President Rousseff of Brazil also signaled Brazil’s support in a joint statement with President Obama last month. LBNL calculates that Brazil can reduce peak demand by between 15 and 36 GW by 2030 and between 46 and 108 GW by 2050, avoiding (or freeing up for other uses) electricity generation capacity of up to72 medium-sized peak load power plants by 2030 and up to 216 by 2050.

The final draft LBNL report is being released tomorrow during the Open-Ended Working Group meeting of the Montreal Protocol being held this week in Paris at an event hosted by LBNL, IGSD, and Terre Policy Centre.  The Meeting of Parties to the Montreal Protocol will be held 1 to 5 November in United Arab Emirates.

While a large majority of countries are pushing for the HFC amendment, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a few other regional allies have been opposing, in part at least out of concern that the climate-friendly substitutes for HFCs should be tested first in countries with high ambient temperatures such as they experience.  According to Zaelke, “An exemption for countries with high ambient temperatures is one possible way to address this concern.”

“Success with the HFC amendment will provide momentum for the UN climate negotiations in Paris in December, and will provide a significant down payment on the mitigation needed to keep the climate safe,” Zaelke added.

The Executive Summary of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab report is here.

IGSD’s Primer on HFCs is here.