A secret ballot in the mysterious and Byzantine world of international safety standards late last month could lead to a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from home heating and cooling systems in the coming years.
During a closed process that ended on April 29, two dozen technical experts from around the world voted unanimously to approve a proposed update to the safety standard for household appliances set by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The IEC sets safety standards for thousands of home appliances. The International Standard serves as a benchmark for country-specific safety standards, such as UL, formerly Underwriters Laboratories, a safety standard in the United States. Details of the subcommittees that shape security standards are usually kept secret. The IEC declined to provide additional information about the vote, including the names of individual representatives of the countries that approved the update.
The update, a draft copy of which IEC shared with Inside Climate News and which IEC plans to publish next month, could help address a significant climate problem that has long plagued manufacturers of air conditioners and high-efficiency electric heating systems known as heat pumps. wanted to use more climate-safe refrigerants, but didn’t have that.
The vast majority of air conditioners and heat pumps used worldwide today rely on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), synthetic chemical refrigerants that, when released into the atmosphere, are very powerful greenhouse gases. The approved update of safety standards will allow appliance manufacturers to use hydrocarbon refrigerants that have little impact on the climate instead.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based environmental organization that has advocated the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants for decades and was one of the first to publicly announce IEC voting resultssays the change could save the equivalent of billions of metric tons of carbon emissions by 2050.
“This is an important milestone because this sector, the air conditioning sector, needs to move away from HFCs if we want to even maintain the hope of staying in a world of warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, head of climate company EIA.
Most air conditioners and heat pumps in the United States today rely on HFC-410a, a chemical refrigerant that is 4,260 times stronger than carbon dioxide when heated to an atmosphere over a 20-year period.
The use of such powerful greenhouse gases in household appliances is problematic because chemical refrigerants slowly leak from appliances into the atmosphere. At the end of the life of the device, refrigerant residues are usually released into the atmosphere when the device is crushed into scrap metal, if no careful measures are taken to collect and destroy the refrigerant.
During its service life, the heat pump is based on HFC 410a release 12 pounds of refrigerant into the atmosphere. The impact of such emissions on the climate, measured over a 20-year period, is equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions when burning 54 barrels of oil or driving for five years, based on the EPA. Greenhouse gas equivalence calculator which assumes that the average distance of transport miles is 11,520 miles per year.
The high efficiency of heat pumps compared to other building heating methods means that in terms of climate they are still the most climatic method of heating a house in most cases. However, if their refrigerant emissions could be reduced, the climatic benefits of using the devices would be greatly improved.
The key is the first step, although change in the US could take years
Regulations set by the state of California require air conditioner manufacturers to phase out HFCs that are most harmful to the climate by 2025, including HFC-410a, and federal regulators are considering a similar rule.
Federal rulemaking is part of the AIM Act, which was passed with the support of two parties and industry the legislation was signed in December 2020 then-President Donald Trump. The AIM Act is in line with an international agreement known as the Kigal Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on the phasing out of HFC production and use. If left unchecked, HFC emissions are expected to lead to additional warming by half a degree Celsius by 2100.
Many home appliance manufacturers are now switching to HFC-32, a refrigerant less powerful than greenhouse gas. However, HFC-32 is still 2,430 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
The new update, adopted by the International Electrotechnical Commission, will allow much greater restrictions on the amount of “A3” or “flammable” refrigerants, including hydrocarbons such as propane, which can be used in heat pumps and air conditioners. The update effectively allows the use of such refrigerants for the first time.
Propane and other hydrocarbon refrigerants have been used safely in refrigerators in Europe and elsewhere for decades, and in recent years this use has greatly extended to the United States The use of propane in air conditioners, however, has been blocked by safety standards claimed by appliance manufacturers and environmentalists. overly restrictive and is designed to protect the interests of American chemical manufacturers.
Hydrocarbon refrigerants, or what fans call “natural refrigerants,” are only about three times more powerful than carbon dioxide than greenhouse gases. The small amounts of refrigerants used in household appliances not only ensure their safety, but also make the emission of these much less powerful greenhouse gases largely negligible.
The update of the international safety standard, which was discussed and revised almost seven years before the recent vote, is widely seen as a key first step to expanding the use of safer refrigerants. However, U.S. safety standards and local building codes must adopt a new international standard before U.S. retailers can sell air conditioners and heat pumps that use propane or other hydrocarbon refrigerants. This process can take years.
U.S. regulations and building codes comply with national safety standards established by UL and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
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Stephen Brewster, a spokesman for UL, confirmed that a U.S. representative who participated in the vote on the updated international standards had voted in favor of an update that would expand the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants. Brewster said U.S. and Canadian security standards experts will consider updating the international security standard as soon as it is officially released. UL often adopts safety standards set by the IEC, but this is not required.
ASHRAE declined to comment.
A recently launched U.S. heat pump company that promises “heating and cooling for the planets” welcomed the news.
“We are now in this vicious circle, where the more air conditioners and heating we use, the warmer the climate and the more we need air conditioning,” said Vince Romanin, CEO of Gradient heat pump manufacturer. “The refrigerants we use today are not sustainable and are scaled up in a world where everyone has access to comfortable buildings that don’t exacerbate warming.”
When Romanin set up his company five years ago, he sought to use the proposed refrigerant because of its low impact on the climate. However, US security standards stopped him.
“We are very excited about what the IEC has done, and we look forward to the United States making changes as soon as possible to obtain similar rules for natural refrigerants,” he said.