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Our cooling devices use powerful greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and curbing them might be the key to tackle the climate crisis.  

Ongoing debates on climate change policies largely ignore a relatively less discussed mitigation approach: managing our cooling devices like refrigerators and air conditioners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the climate crisis.

There are an estimated 1.4 billion fridges and freezers in the world today. There are also 1.6 billion air conditioning units and countless refrigerated trucks, warehouses, containers, medical appliances, and many industrial devices that require cooling. The number of cooling devices is expected to reach 14 billion worldwide by 2050.

Environmental Impact of Heating and Cooling Systems

Every refrigerator or air conditioning unit contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable cooling. Dangerous refrigerants, specifically Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), were once culprits in depleting the ozone layer. But they have already been phased out thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

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Manufacturers today use a class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. HFCs do not destroy ozone, but they do form a blanket at high altitudes holding in heat. They have 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

Refrigerant Management and Climate Change

Refrigerant management — reducing emissions of greenhouse gases like HFCs from cooling appliances — might be the most impactful step to solving climate changing. An analysis of different climate change solutions and their mitigation potential by Project Drawdown–a research organisation that reviews, analyses, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions — ranks refrigerant management first among the top 80 possible solutions. The study estimates that by 2050 refrigerant management can reduce 89.7 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions, 5 gigatons more than the closest solution in the list: onshore wind turbines.

Refrigerant management, just like other climate change mitigation solutions, is not easy to implement. “There are weak regulations on controlling refrigerants, their leakage, and their end-of-life recovery,” says the study.  “There are no economic incentives for the recovery of refrigerants. Funding, training, technical, and informational barriers are also some of the limitations for the adoption of this solution.” It is estimated that the adoption process worldwide would cost $902.8 billion by 2050.

In order to successfully adopt the solution, the study says, new policies and regulations on refrigerant management need to be formulated and implemented worldwide. Strong regulations including a complete ban on venting of refrigerants must be introduced in national legislations.

As per the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, developed countries, including the United States and those in the European Union, will reduce the production and consumption of HFCs from 2019. Much of the rest of the world, including China, Brazil and all of Africa, will freeze the use of HFCs by 2024. A small group of the world’s hottest countries such as Bahrain, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have the most lenient schedule and will freeze HFCs use by 2028. But the countries may substitute HFCs with chemicals that are either toxic, like ammonia, or flammable, like propane, which might lead to other problems like air pollution.

However, emerging market-based solutions that attempt to tackle the problems of refrigerants offer a glimpse of hope.  Disruptive companies like Phononic, which produces modern  refrigerators, rely on thermodynamic science instead of HFCs for cooling.  While standard fridges and freezers work by creating cool air and blowing it throughout an area using compressors and refrigerants, Phononic’s devices use semiconductors that draw heat out and transfer it elsewhere. Without a compressor, the devices are also extremely energy efficient.  

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

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