Environmental impact of refrigerant gases and F-Gases European rules
Cooling systems are increasingly an important element of comfort, but also the cause of environmental pollution and CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and their impact becomes increasingly significant as their diffusion and use grow globally.
Cooling systems are in fact more and more widespread and the energy needed to make them work represents an ever higher percentage of the energy consumption of nations: just think that in the United Kingdom - a country where average temperatures are much lower than in Italy - 20% of all electricity consumed in a year is destined to run the air conditioners, and that almost 90% of US buildings are equipped with cooling. This trend is not limited to Europe or North America, but is a true global phenomenon that will involve an ever-increasing number of people, spreading like wildfire even in emerging and populous nations, such as India or China: in this regard, it is estimated that by 2100 all over the world the amount of energy destined to operate cooling systems will be 30 times higher than today, both because there will be more and more people who will live and work in cooled environments in every part of the planet, both for the worrying and inexorable increase in its temperature. Hence the importance of this type of consumption in the perspective of the energy transition underway.
F-gas and environmental impact
The environmental impact of air conditioners does not only depend on the large amount of energy needed to power them and the related atmospheric CO2 emissions, but also on the fact that the refrigerant gases used inside them cause the emission of fluorinated greenhouse gases (also called “F-gas”), and in particular of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
Until relatively recently, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) could also be used in cooling systems, gases even more dangerous than today because - in addition to favoring the greenhouse effect - they also had a very negative impact on stratospheric ozone. These substances, starting from the early nineties, have been gradually replaced by HFC gases - such as the gases R404a, R410a and R32, which are the most common today - which, despite being less harmful to the ozone layer, still have an important and harmful climate-altering effect.
The F-gases, if released into the atmosphere, are able to produce a much higher heating than that caused by carbon dioxide. Their danger in this sense is expressed by a particular parameter, the GWP - Global Warming Potential - which expresses the ability of each of these gases to heat the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, used as a benchmark, has been assigned GWP 1, and all other gases can therefore easily be compared with this starting from their GWP.
The R32 gas, for example, has a GWP of 675, which means that the emission of 1 kg of this gas into the atmosphere is equivalent to the emission of 675 kg of carbon dioxide; if this data seems surprising, it will be even more significant to think that the R410a gas, still used today in many heat pumps and electric chillers, has a GWP of 2080.
It is therefore evident that the impact of this type of gas on the atmosphere is extremely significant even in the face of relatively low losses.
What does the European F-Gas regulation provide?
Given the dangerousness of F-Gases and the ever-increasing diffusion of cooling systems, the EU has been moving for some time in the direction of increasingly strict control over the types of refrigerant gases that can be used in heating and cooling equipment.
As we have mentioned, for example, since 2015 the use of R22 gas has been completely prohibited, while in 2014 the regulation 517/2014 on F-Gases was published which establishes a series of obligations that will come into force progressively, until become definitive in 2025. Such extended application times are necessary to allow, where possible, the conversion of cooling systems that use banned refrigerant gases, or their replacement with more modern and less polluting systems, all actions that necessarily require long times.
Among the main innovations provided for by regulation 517/2014 we find:
- the commitment to progressively reduce the overall quantity of F-Gas placed on the European market, in terms of tons of CO2 equivalent (thus favoring the use of gas with a lower GWP);
- the ban on using gas with a GWP greater than 2500 in all new plants, starting from 2020;
- the ban on using gas with a GWP greater than 2500 for maintenance activities for most plants, starting from 2020;
- the ban on the use of gas with a GWP greater than 750 in residential air conditioners with a gas charge of less than 3 kg, starting from 2025;
- the obligation to carry out more frequent maintenance in the case of cooling systems that use gas with a high GWP.
The goal of this regulation is to achieve a 79% reduction in F-gas emissions by 2030, compared to the average emissions in the 2009-2012 period.
But that's still not enough. The acceleration of the earth's temperature increase required a necessary revision of the aforementioned Regulation. In fact, the latest proposal for the revision of the Regulation issued by the European Commission on 5 April last - COM (2022) 150 final - Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on fluorinated greenhouse gases, which amends Directive (EU) 2019 / 1937 and repealing regulation (EU) no. 517/2014 - greatly anticipates the phase-out of climate-changing refrigerants and lowers the GWP values allowed from the 1st of January 2025 to 150.
It is important to underline that Europe is not the only reality that is moving in this direction: in the last months of 2021, the USA also decided to undertake a path of reducing F-gas emissions, committing to reduce by 85 % their hydrofluorocarbon emissions by 2035.
In this scenario, it is becoming more and more convenient - from an environmental and economic point of view - to prefer cooling solutions that do not use HFC gas, and therefore are not subject to the constraints of the European regulation on F-gases: this is the case of heat pumps and chillers of the Robur range, which use natural gas and a mix of water and ammonia as refrigerant fluids.