The Green Blog

A reduction of greenhouse gases 'you never heard of'

May 9, 2011

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Excerpts from the Globe’s environmental blog.

It was an unqualified win for the environment: the phaseout of ozone-depleting gases used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners the world over.

But their celebrated replacement has also turned out to be deeply harmful to the environment in another way. Called hydrofluorocarbons, they are potent greenhouse gases and can persist for years in the environment. They are growing in popularity, and some projections say HFCs could account for 19 percent of heat-trapping emissions by 2050.

“These are the worst greenhouse gased you never heard of,’’ said Amy Larkin, director of solutions for Greenpeace.

But there is a natural solution — one that was all but ignored by businesses until an unlikely alliance was forged among environmentalists and commercial businesses, according to the Harvard Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program that recently chose the consortium for a prestigious award.

The companies — Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Unilever, and PepsiCo — and Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program have worked in recent years to substitute HFCs with natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons.

Called Refrigerants, Naturally!, the group works to develop technologies that are safe, reliable, affordable, and energy efficient. Coca-Cola, which is already using the natural gases in a growing number of new refrigeration units, has pledged to ensure all new refrigeration equipment will have the natural refrigerants by 2015.

Corporations began looking for alternatives but found few. In 2004, Refrigerants, Naturally! was launched by McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Unilever to encourage manufacturers to make products using non-HFC gases and to share technology. Today, the group estimates hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions have been prevented from entering the atmosphere because of the effort. The consortium began with a handful of companies and has won commitments from 400 to begin phasing out HFCs.

The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, a chemical industry trade group, has said HFCs are far less harmful to the environment than their precursors. But in an e-mail, executive director Dave Stirpe said the alliance supports a “phasedown,’’ not a phaseout.

He said a phaseout could “leave sectors without safe, energy-efficient and technically and economically feasible alternatives.’’

The award, called the Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership, is given every two years to an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality.

Henry Lee, director of Harvard’s Environment and Natural Resources program said the winning program makes a creative and significant contribution to improving the environment, adding that “at a time we are having great difficulty getting climate change passed, here is a project that has made a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.’’