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The transition away from the production and consumption of high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has prompted air conditioning, refrigeration, and heat pump equipment manufacturers to seek alternative refrigerants with lower direct climate impacts. Additional factors affecting alternative refrigerant choice include safety (i.e., flammability and toxicity), environmental, and thermodynamic constraints. At the same time, manufacturers are incentivized to seek refrigerants with higher energy efficiency, which saves on electricity costs and reduces indirect greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. The life cycle climate performance (LCCP) metric is commonly used to assess the combined direct and indirect climate impacts of refrigerant-use equipment. Here, we consider an additional impact on climate performance: the degradation of refrigerant in equipment, i.e., the direct climate impacts of high-GWP byproducts that can form as the result of adding trifluoroiodomethane (CF3I) to refrigerant blends to reduce flammability. Such a production of high-GWP gases could change the acceptability of CF3I-containing refrigerants. Further, it highlights the need to understand refrigerant degradation within equipment in calculations of the environmental acceptability of new cooling technology.

In 1974, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland warned that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could destroy the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects Earth against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation [Molina and Rowland Nature 1974, 249, 810]. In 1975, Ramanathan warned that CFCs are powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs) and would rival carbon dioxide (CO2) in causing climate change if left unabated [Ramanathan Science 1975, 190, 50]. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Protocol), arguably the most successful global environmental treaty in history, was enacted in response to these warnings. This Protocol has phased out almost 99% of the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances (ODSs). Other papers have explored the world avoided” by actions under the Protocol [Prather et al. Nature 1996, 381, 551; Newman et al. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 2009, 9, 2113; Morgenstern et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 2008, 35, 1]. They concluded that the ozone layer would have been highly depleted across the globe by the mid-21st century without the Protocol and that the Protocol contributed significantly to reduce climate change. This paper explores what could have been achieved if the world had acted against the continued use of ODSs, which were both ozone-depleting and greenhouse gases, immediately after Molina and Rowland warned of stratospheric ozone depletion and Ramanathan warned of climate forcing using chemicals and technology that were already globally available in the mid-1970s. We show that such precautionary principle” actions would have reduced global ozone layer depletion, reduced the extent of the ozone hole, brought forward the dates for ozone layer recovery, and helped minimize climate change.

Inclusion of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol offers a path, starting in the short term, to preserve the climate benefits already achieved by this treaty.

Issue of Our Planet, the magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme.