Presentation by Robert Fox, edited by Eamonn Ryan
SAIRAC Johannesburg president Robert Fox delivered a presentation at the May Tech Talk on the subject of ‘Climate change and challenges for the HVACR industry’.
In the early 1970s, scientists at NASA made a noteworthy observation of peculiar ozone readings over the Arctic region. Subsequent research led them to publish a study proposing the existence of an ozone hole, which was met with general scepticism. However, by 1980, as the ozone hole expanded, it garnered global attention and sparked further investigations. This pivotal turning point gave rise to the Vienna Convention, which aimed to tackle ozone depletion, and culminated in the Montreal Protocol of 1987.
The Montreal Protocol marked a significant milestone as it galvanised international commitment to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. The ozone hole continued to expand until the year 2000, exacerbated by shifting weather patterns. Only in 2015 did the expansion cease, with a reduction of 20%, thanks to concerted efforts. Subsequently, the Kigali Amendment emerged, focusing on the global warming potential (GWP), and necessitating the phased elimination of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). South Africa ratified this amendment in 2019.
Extensive research has identified temperature hotspots worldwide, particularly in the form of rising temperatures at the polar ice caps and the associated risks of elevated sea levels. Various international conventions have sought to limit global warming to a maximum temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2040. Alarming reports now indicate a 66% likelihood of a temperature increase ranging from 1.1°C to 1.8°C above the average within the next five years.
It is imperative that we acknowledge the GWP of refrigerants, given that Europe is currently enforcing regulations to reduce GWP to levels below 150. Our journey in refrigeration dates back to the 1830s when natural refrigerants were first employed. Subsequently, in the 1930s, R12, a synthetic refrigerant known for its affordability and safety, was invented. The period between 1950 and the discovery of ozone depletion witnessed the prevalent use of CFCs, followed by HCFCs, with R22 being the most common variant.
In response to the depletion of the ozone layer, the industry transitioned to HFCs. However, in 2015, the European Union initiated a phase-down of HFCs, thereby redirecting the market towards natural refrigerants. Examples of such environmentally favourable alternatives include ammonia, CO2, and hydrocarbons such as R600 and R290. The Kigali Amendment specifically outlines the phasedown of HFCs.
To comprehensively understand the measures taken to address refrigerant emissions, it is essential to familiarise ourselves with several significant global treaties:
- Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987): The Montreal Protocol is an international environmental treaty aimed at protecting the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), including CFCs and HCFCs. It sets specific reduction targets and schedules for the phase-out of these substances, leading to the recovery of the ozone layer.
- Copenhagen Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (1992): This protocol aimed to accelerate the phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs. It set more ambitious reduction targets and an accelerated schedule for the complete phase-out of these substances, taking into account technological advancements and the availability of alternative substances with lower environmental impact.
- Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1997): While the Kyoto Protocol primarily focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it indirectly contributes to the reduction of HFC emissions. It established binding emission reduction targets for several greenhouse gases, including HFCs, by setting specific emissions limits for developed countries during the first commitment period (2008-12).
- Beijing Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (1999): This amendment further strengthened the Montreal Protocol by setting additional reduction targets for HCFCs and introducing financial provisions to support developing countries in their efforts to phase out these substances. It also established a fund, the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, to assist developing countries financially and technologically.
- Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (2016): It specifically addresses the phasedown of HFCs, setting targets and schedules for reducing the production and consumption of HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases used as substitutes for CFCs and HCFCs. The amendment aims to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century and provides a framework for transitioning to more environmentally friendly alternatives.
These treaties have been instrumental in curbing the emissions of ozone-depleting substances and high global warming potential gases like CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs. They have encouraged the development and use of alternatives that have lower or no impact on the ozone layer and contribute less to climate change. Through these international agreements, significant progress has been made in protecting the ozone layer and mitigating climate change.
Commencing in 2024, South Africa embarks on the phasedown of HFCs with a gradual reduction in the volume of imported refrigerants. Consequently, if the current level of imports stands at 100 tons, the new limit will be 90 tons. However, this transition cannot occur overnight due to the considerable lifespan of installed refrigerant systems, which typically spans 20 years.
The phasedown process is anticipated to be a gradual and protracted transition, and significant changes are not expected in the immediate two to three years. However, we have begun observing the emergence of air conditioning systems utilising R32, a refrigerant boasting a superior GWP of less than 750. While this presents a more favourable option, it is essential for technicians to undergo training in handling the new refrigerants and be aware of their inherent hazards when not handled properly. In the long run, natural refrigerants represent the optimal choice; unfortunately, the necessary hardware is not currently available within the country.
Regulatory requirements play a critical role in guiding the industry towards sustainable practices. However, there have been notable delays in governmental decision-making processes. For instance, despite the Kigali Amendment being introduced in 2016, South Africa ratified it only three years later. Currently, the country relies primarily on outdated standard environmental acts as the sole government regulations. In 2012, the HCFC phase-out national plan was introduced, followed by the publication of the National Environment Management Air Quality Act in 2014, which specifically addressed the phase-out and management of ozone-depleting substances. South Africa’s ratification of the Kigali Amendment occurred in 2019. In 2021, an amendment was published; however, it failed to provide substantial guidance on the future phasedown in accordance with the Kigali Amendment. Consequently, a pervasive sense of uncertainty prevails, and a comprehensive roadmap for transitioning towards natural refrigerants remains absent.
Although hydrocarbon refrigeration technology is already established in other parts of the world, it is not yet fully commercially available within South Africa and is currently limited to the domestic appliance market segment. Importation of such technology is currently limited due to the lack of demand within the country.
The complexity escalates when considering multiplex systems employing ammonia and CO2. Furthermore, analysing the cost of refrigerants relative to the baseline R22, R404 demonstrates a substantial increase of approximately 1.7 times, while the new refrigerant 448 is nearly 3.3 times more expensive than R22. Conversely, R290 proves to be a more affordable alternative to R22; however, its viability is hindered by the unavailability of compatible hardware.
Addressing maintenance costs, fuel quality, pressure, and flammability requires adherence to safety principles outlined in SANS 10147 and ASHRAE Standard 34, which categorise refrigerants into different safety groups.
Regardless of the safety group classification, be it A1 or A3, utmost importance must be placed on ensuring proper handling to mitigate potential risks. Technicians operating in the industry must prioritise the critical aspect of refrigerant training. Alarmingly, a significant number of technicians remain unregistered and lack adequate training. It is imperative to drum home the necessity of attending training programmes to enable safe handling of refrigerants. This presents a formidable challenge that must be urgently addressed.