Oh great. Back in the '80s when the ozone hole was fresh news and the Montreal Protocol was unsigned - but a threat to big chemistry companies such as DuPont so dastardly they sent squads of p.r. guys to newspapers so they could hector science writers by insisting the world could not go on without ozone-clobbering CFCs in our AC units - there was one confusion I strove to correct (quite aside from there being good ozone in the stratosphere and bad ozone down here). Global warming was then as now also in the news. And then along had come another global-scale threat, to ozone. People tended to blame CO2 for ozone holes, and CFCs for global warming, or each for both. Contrarians thought they were all innocent of course. The first President Bush mocked Al Gore as "Ozone Man," an all-purpose epithet that also embraced global warming zealots and other people who would put us up to our neck in owls but outta work. No no no, I'd try to insist in stories, they're not the same.
But all along there was one genuine link - the now-banned CFCs leaked into the atmosphere, lasted for many decades (much of it is still up there), and themselves are pound for pound more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.
And today the NYTimes's Elizabeth Rosenthal and Andrew W. Lehren ran, front page with a double-truck jump (ie - for non-newspaper oldtimers - a two-page spread inside) that further makes ozone hole repair and air conditioners a global warming issue and inevitably a further source of attribution confusion. The story is not wrong. It focusses on the ramifications of the developing world's immense and unstoppable appetite for as many air conditioners as its growing middle class and even working class can afford to buy. The refrigerants in the units pouring from factories everywhere but mainly in China and India will eventually work their way into the air. The presently permitted generation of such stuff, while not a big threat to ozone, tends toward powerful greenhouse gases scattering infrared wavelengths back toward the surface.
Rosenthal writes further and charmingly on the story's issues at the paper's Green blog: My Air-Conditioner Envy.
The p. 1A story is a lot of disturbing prose. It oscillates between eye-witness examples of the surging demand for chilled air at the consumer end, and the technical and economic issues of refrigerants now available and those under development at the production end. There are charts and diagrams. One learns of the potential for hydrocarbon refrigerants - ones that presumably will degrade into plain-jane greenhouse gas CO2. They may also degrade real fast: they are flammable. Oh. Anybody for a flame-spitting air conditioner? Well, andles are flammable and gas stoves use, surprise, flammable gas.
Something is missing however. How long does this newer, more ozone-friendly stuff last? Much of our extra CO2 will still be up there or in the sea for 1000 years. What about half-life of these freon replacements? It doesn't come up. That's the measure how long it takes for half of such a gas to decompose into something that is neither potent ozone killer nor global warming accelerator. If a refrigerant is a strong greenhouse gas, that's only half the story. One that lasts decades in the air and another that breaks down after a few months pose different threats. It does not take long to discover that, within the industry that makes air conditioners and chillers (same thing basically, but they make cold water that in turn is used to cool air), there is a drive to keep one mildly ozone-eating refrigerant called HCFC-123 in production. It has a half life of less than a year and a half. And it's used mainly for large 'centrifugal' chillers suited for big buildings. So maybe it should get a slide? I dunno the pros and cons of that specifically. The plot (high def here) just to the left and up is from a sales-job pdf that AC giant Trane circulates to its customers. It suggests that HCFC-123 is green as the jalapeña pepper I brought home yesterday from the Safeway.
I can't, again, vouch for HCFC-123's policy hue. But I know about it only because I asked myself how long the various alternatives on the market now or in the offing last in the air and had to go to the web for answers. The Times should have mentioned it as a factor.
For all the bewildering list of refrigerants that the Timed did mention, it does not take long to learn also that there is a bunch more out there aside from HCFC-123. One cannot fault the story for that specific omission - nobody expects a newspaper story to be a technical handbook.
It is a service that this piece ran so prominently. It also leaves plenty for other reporters to examine.
- Seattle Times - Johanna Somers: American Seafoods pays penalty for ozone-depleting gas ;
- Eco-Business.com/ Antara News: RAPP, Pertamina cooperate in hydrocarbon use; A paper mill in Indonesia is using hydrocarbon chillants in its chillers. No word here whether its forestry is sustainable.
- India Blooms News Service: Energy standards of ACs upgraded in India ;
- University Arkansas press release: UALR Residence Hall Certified LEED Gold ; Says its cooled with super green Puron refrigerant. Oh, cool. But that's a trade name for the Carrier Corp's version of R-410, presumably same as the HFC-410a that the Times labels as the worst stuff on global warming. Hmmm. If that's right, one wonders if the LEED awards' managers will get some suggestions they rejigger their criteria.
- Charlie Petit