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

by IGSD - 22 July, 2015
Dual strategy critical for avoiding 2°C barrier

This week countries are meeting at the 36th Meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol. On the agenda are four proposals to amend the Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) globally. HFCs are potent greenhouse gases that are substitutes for ozone-depleting substances being phased out under the Montreal Protocol, and their use is growing rapidly, increasing by as much as 10-15 percent per year. Fast action to address high-global warming potential HFCs would catalyse gains in energy efficiency in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, thereby reducing electricity use and CO2 emissions, along with emissions of the HFCs themselves. 

The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), partner of the CCAC, has been advocating for HFC phase down under the Montreal Protocol, and is a co-organiser of several side events throughout this week. A report Benefits of Leapfrogging to Super-efficiency and Low Global Warming Potential Refrigerants in Air Conditioning by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and IGSD was released providing an initial estimate of the magnitude of such GHG and peak electric load savings potential if the HFC refrigerant transition and energy efficiency improvement policies are implemented.

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.

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.

“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. 

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.

Read IGSD’s Press Release here.

A number of the CCAC Partners and other stakeholders, who are also engaged in the CCAC HFC Alternative Technologies and Standards Initiative, organize side events on margins of the meeting, covering a broad range of topics such as safety issues for alternate refrigerants, long-term emissions from submitted amendment proposals, amendment design, finance and flexibility, among others.