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Climate Change and the HVACR Industry

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2019 was recorded as the second warmest year in the 140-year record of climate data. 2019 was also the 43rd consecutive year where global land and ocean temperatures were nominally higher than the 20th-century average. While climate change is a natural phenomenon, scientists who study climate change predict our planet’s continued abuse could lead to increased natural disasters, unfit living conditions, rising sea levels, and much more. Earth is getting warmer. With this information, the big question that remains is, what can we do as an industry to make a difference? 

What is Climate Change?

Climate change is the long-term alteration in Earth’s climate and weather patterns. The first studies on climate change were produced in the 1800s, although most evidence was not corroborated until the late 1950s.   

One of the leading theories examining the causes of climate change is the “Greenhouse Effect” theory. This theory was initially studied in the 1820s by French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier. He proposed that as energy (sunlight) reaches the Earth and enters our system, it must be balanced out by energy leaving the Earth. However, some of that energy must be held within the Earth’s atmosphere and not returned to space to keep the Earth warm. This theory was the basic layout for future scientists’ understanding of climate change. 

It was later discovered that Earth’s atmosphere, where the heat is trapped, is made up of gases that are especially effective at absorbing energy. Some of these gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and volatile hydrocarbons. The Earth alone, without human impact, naturally emits these gases into the air. An example of this is Earth’s volcanoes, which on average emit 0.26 billion metric tons of CO2 per year! Since Earth is a closed system, energy in must equal energy out. Without human-caused emissions, the Earth can better regulate the amount of gas trapped in the atmosphere, making these natural processes minuscule in the grand scheme of things. Without human impact, there would still be climate change. However, human emissions impact increases the timeline at a rapid pace.   

To put this to scale, In 2019, the United States alone emitted 4.76 billion metric tons of CO2. According to the EPA, the United States’ top 6 contributors to climate change are Transportation (28.2% of emissions in 2018), electricity production (26.9% of emissions in 2018), Industry (22% of emissions in 2018), Commercial and Residential uses (12.3% of emissions in 2018), Agriculture (9.9% of emissions in 2018) and land use/forestry (11.6% of emissions in 2018).

How Does Climate Change Apply to the HVACR Industry?

Three-quarters of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners alone use about 6% of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of $29 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 117 million metric tons of CO2 are released into the air each year from air conditioning. Taking steps to reduce a system’s energy use is key to mitigating the HVACR industry’s impact.  

Another hot topic for the HVACR industry’s involvement in climate change is refrigerants. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, HVACR units used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as their refrigerant. CFC refrigerants are harmful to the ozone layer when they are vented into the atmosphere. Because of this, CFC refrigerants were phased out of the HVACR industry. Welcoming in their place halogenated chlorofluorocarbon (HFCs) refrigerants to the industry. While HFC refrigerants do not harm the ozone layer, they do have a higher global warming potential (GWP) when vented into the atmosphere. Their chemical makeup causes them to get stuck. GWP is a quantified measure of the globally averaged relative radiative forcing impacts of particular greenhouse gases. GWP gases have a long atmospheric life (i.e., years) as they last long enough in the atmosphere to mix evenly and spread out, forming a uniform concentration. HFC refrigerant use was expected to see significant growth in developing countries. This growth was due to population growth, rapid urbanization, electrification, and changing consumer patterns. However, if left unchecked, it is estimated that HFCs will amount to 9-19% of total CO2 emissions by 2050. Thus, there is a growing focus on phasing down HFCs in the HVACR industry. 

International treaties, such as the Kigali Amendment and the Montreal Protocol, have called for the phase-out of HFC refrigerants in order to reduce climate impact. The U.S. signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and has continued to be a leader in guiding the treaty’s successes. Under the Protocol, the EPA reduced annual emissions by an estimated 160 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2010. The original Montreal Protocol was aimed at the phasedown of CFC refrigerants. However, the Kigali Amendment (added in 2016) expanded it to include HFC refrigerants. The Kigali amendment requires all nations to slash their use of HFCs by at least 80 percent over the next 30 years. The U.S. responded by banning HFC refrigerants’ venting during service and disposal of all refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. However, up until this year, there was a limited movement by the U.S. to reduce HFC refrigerants’ use. 

In December 2020, Congress passed the AIM Act, which called for a phasedown of HFC refrigerants by 85% over 15 years. This is a much more aggressive target than what is laid out in the Kigali Amendment but keeps the U.S. up to date in global industry demands on products and service.   

As the industry moves away from HFC refrigerants, the adoption of A2L refrigerants has begun. Most A2L refrigerants fall under a GWP amount of <750, while many HFC refrigerants score <1,500 or more on the GWP scale. This GWP deficit will reduce the industry’s impact on global climate change and meet the guidelines set out by the international treaties. There are some growing concerns about A2L refrigerants as they enter the marketplace, though. A2Ls are a mildly-flammable refrigerant, and safe implementation will require ongoing training of HVACR contractors. You can get ahead of the game by checking out ACCA’s new A2L Refrigerant Training covering ignition prevention and safety and best practices for the use of A2Ls.

What Can My Company and I Do to Reduce My climate Footprint (as it pertains to HVACR)?

While there are many things an individual can do to reduce their climate impact, the real change will come from industries working together. Here are some things you can do to get your company on board for a cleaner future: 

  1. Share with your customers the importance of switching to high-efficiency air conditioners that are installed with quality installation techniques. ACCA has made it easy using this handout!
  2. Encourage customers to switch to high efficiency HVACR systems. (Switching to a high-efficiency air conditioner could reduce energy use by 20-50%).  
  3. While high-efficiency units are a start to practicing climate-friendly air-conditioning, the EPA estimates over 40% of all units are improperly installed, nullifying their efficiency levels. Ensuring a quality installation paired with ongoing annual servicing can reduce overall emissions into the atmosphere. Learn to design residential HVAC systems and provide quality installations through ACCA’s Residential HVAC Design Course.   
  4. Ensure all members of your team follow Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, prohibiting the ventilation of refrigerants into the atmosphere.  
  5. Prepare for the safe handling and installation of A2L refrigerants by taking ACCA’s new A2L refrigerant training! 
  6. Become a Quality Assured contractor. 

What Can My Customers Do to Reduce Their Climate Footprint (as it pertains to HVACR)?

  1. Maintaining their HVACR equipment through a yearly maintenance check. You can direct them to this handout. 
  2. Replacing old systems with new high-efficiency systems paired with a quality installation. 
  3. Investing in services from qualified and highly skilled contractors.
  4. Ensure they are getting a quality installation by hiring an ACCA member! (Check out our contractor locator). 

Sources used for this article: 

Climate Change History by 

National Centers for Environmental Information (NOAA) Global Climate Report – Annual 2019 

NOAA Climate Change: Global Temperature 

USGS Volcano Hazards Program 

EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions 

IEA data and statistics of CO2 Emissions Air Conditioning 

GHG Institute: What is a GWP? 

EPA International Actions – The Montreal Protocol 

Climate and Clean Air Coalition Promoting HFC Alternative Technology and Standards 

Inside Climate News  

Posted In: Opinion, Technology

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