The Greening of Cooling

About the Author: Kristen Taddonio is a program analyst in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation’s Climate Protection Partnerships Division specializing in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Kristen was recently selected as a finalist for the Partnership for Public Service’s “Call to Service” Medal, honoring outstanding young federal employees.

Have you ever sat in a car with a broken air conditioner on a hot summer day? If so, you might wonder how anyone ever drove a car without it. These days, car A/C is nearly universal – and in rapidly developing countries like India and China, it is among the first luxuries people are buying. The irony to all this is that even though A/C cools us down, it’s warming the planet up. Refrigerants are powerful greenhouse gases. CFC-12, the ozone-depleting refrigerant that used to be used in our cars’ A/C before 1994, was a greenhouse gas 8,500 times more potent than carbon dioxide! Thankfully, our current refrigerant, HFC-134a, is safe for the ozone layer. However, it is still a potent global warming gas: one pound of HFC-134a is equivalent to over 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. As more and more people buy cars with A/C, the global warming impacts are increasing.

The good news is that alterative refrigerants are available that can drastically reduce the impact our air conditioners have on the environment, and car makers are set to pick a replacement for HFC-134a in the near future. By switching away from HFC-134a in cars, the United States will save the equivalent of 30-50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year! See EPA’s Mobile Air Conditioning website.

However, this good news story could have had a very different ending. We’ve all heard stories about great new technologies that for one reason or the other, just didn’t work out. In each case, there is a show-stopper: either they were too expensive, undercut by competitors, or not marketed well enough. For new refrigerants, the show-stopper was outdated laws that would have forced automakers to stay with the old refrigerant. For the last three years, I’ve been working with an international consortium of environmental, automotive and engineering experts to fix the problem, and I’m happy to say we’ve had great success. Through our outreach and education, we’ve been able to help clear the way for cleaner refrigerants, and a cleaner future.

Until the new refrigerants arrive, I’ll still be using my car A/C. But it feels good to know that in the near future, I will be able to keep my car cool, and the planet too!

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