There’s a good reason why the air conditioning industry relies on chemicals that are bad for the environment—they’re safe for consumers. The Kigali Amendment, however, brings to the forefront the consumer safety versus environment trade-off. Based on current air conditioning technologies, there’s a direct trade-off between addressing climate change and refrigerant flammability. Lower global warming potential refrigerants such as R-32 and propane are more flammable. For now, to phase down HFCs, countries will need to squarely confront this trade-off.
In 2016, countries gathered to develop the Kigali Amendment to phase down the climate impact of refrigerants over the next 30 years. Sixty-nine countries have ratified the amendment. Notably, today’s two largest producers and consumers of HFCs, the US and China, have not signed on. Neither has India, the country likely to lead global air conditioning use in the future given the country’s hot, humid climate and large population.
Finding a Balance
There are two options for countries to take when looking at consumer safety and the climate.
Argue that consumer safety is paramount and no flammability risk is acceptable when it comes to air conditioning. Choosing this option says that the perceived cost in terms of safety is too high relative to the climate change benefit. A government holding this position would want to keep all flammable refrigerants off the market. Such a country would be relying on the development of new air conditioning technologies and refrigerants to meet its Kigali phase down goals. If new technologies don’t appear this view could lead a country to conclude that phasing out HFCs just isn’t worth the cost and continue relying on existing non-flammable options. The US is currently in this camp and has found itself with several states taking the phase-down into it’s own hands.
The second option is for a country to allow more flammable refrigerants to enter the market, with significant regulatory safeguards. An alternative refrigerant, R-32, which is classified as “mildly flammable”, has entered the market and captured a large market share. R-32 has been well known for decades but has been rarely adopted due to its flammability. These governments have, in effect, reconsidered the careful balance between consumer safety and climate change and concluded a riskier refrigerant is needed given the costs of climate change. Japan, Europe and Australia are taking this approach.
There is no winner or loser here. Moving to a low GWP refrigerant means people around the world, now and in the future, benefit from less climate change. It also means there are households who now have a flammable chemical in their home.
As efforts to address climate change progress, difficult trade-offs will likely become more common. It will be more important for policymakers to recognize the trade-offs and carefully balance them. Hopefully, with a little time, more manufacturers will find other ways to meet the environmental goals safely.