Earth Issues

What’s hot in mobile airconditioning

 | September 29, 2010

Sometimes there’s no better way to beat the heat than going for a drive in an air conditioned vehicle, but though you may not know it, that lovely air conditioning is actually depleting the ozone layer.


The chemicals used in refrigerant for air conditioning and refrigeration systems contribute what are known as super greenhouse gases and are currently responsible for billions of tonnes of emissions.

The automobile manufacturing industry, not surprisingly, is taking a lead in stopping this harmful effect caused by air conditioned vehicles.

General Motors (GM) recently announced a new mobile air conditioning unit constructed by Honeywell. Using new, cleaner chemical mobile air conditioning units in GM’s 2013 Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC vehicles means less greenhouse gases being sent skyward. The new refrigerant, called HFO, will be replacing the super greenhouse gas emitting HFC-134a.

How much of a difference will this make? Consider that the new HFO has a global warming potential of just 4—the HFC-134a is 1,400. In the case of the climate, less is definitely better.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in the U.S., notes this is a huge deal for both the automobile industry and its consumers.

“It’s going to be a great incentive for following the lead of GM,” he says of other industry leaders. “Globally mobile air conditioning units represent a third of HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) use—they’re the fastest growing greenhouse gas and predicted to grow by 140 per cent by 2020.”

The lowering of HFCs in the environment is part of the Montreal Protocol. Considering mobile air conditioning units (those used in vehicles) represent a third of those emissions, this goal would be easier to achieve if consumers stop using them.

This is hard to think about, especially when the hot days of summer hit. We can be thankful for our cold, snowy winters in British Columbia for the seasonal shut down of inefficient, toxic appliances.

Canada’s membership in the Montreal Protocol requires reduction in the consumption and production of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC) by 20 per cent. More than 95 per cent of commercial and residential air conditioning units and more than 50 per cent of commercial refrigeration equipment in Canada operate on HCFC refrigerants. New technology will need to be developed if this goal is to be reached.

While it helps that car manufacturers receive credits for using energy efficient and environmentally friendly parts in the United States, manufacturers will hop on the bandwagon as consumers start to look for more cost and energy efficient modes of travel. The air conditioning unit is important in becoming more energy efficient.
“Mobile air conditioners use two or three per cent of the car’s energy use on average,” says Zaelke. “In warmer climates it’s five to nine per cent—it’s a very important part of a car’s energy profile.”
While it’s only the beginning to what we’ll see for clean, energy efficient refrigerants, the only question following becomes, what should we do with all the chemicals and air conditioning units being phased out?

“These are synthetic gases humans make so you can go to the source and control them better there,” says Zaelke.  “It (the control of toxic waste) needs to be highlighted and addressed.”

At least one foot is moving forward in the right direction. As we move towards energy efficiency and start to consciously reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we send into the environment, the happier the ozone layer gets.

For more information about refrigerants and GM and Honeywell’s new HFO, visit www.igsd.org.

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