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Destruction of Ozone Depleting Substances

Carbon markets provide the financial incentive to destroy heat-trapping refrigerants before they leak into the atmosphere.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a class of chemical refrigerants that destroy the ozone layer and warm our planet. They are both ozone depleting substances (ODS) and potent greenhouse gases (GHGs). In an effort to protect the ozone layer, a global pact called the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987 banning further production of CFCs. However, the agreement did not address existing CFCs, which continue to be used, recycled and reused to this day. 

CFCs are found in old cooling equipment, such as refrigerators and the air-conditioning units of automobiles and buildings. Over time, the refrigerants leak out into the atmosphere. As aging appliances and chillers are retired, CFCs are collected, cleaned, and sold for reuse. They are recycled back into old appliances and air-conditioners, and again they leak out into the atmosphere. Many countries impose requirements that used CFCs be properly collected for reuse or mandatory destruction. However, even in places with regulatory infrastructure and trained technicians, enforcement is difficult.

CFC’s are highly potent GHGs. The ability of CFC-12 to trap heat is nearly 11,000 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) and, similarly, CFC-11 is 4,750 times as powerful as CO2. By some estimates, releasing all existing CFCs would be equivalent to pumping 16 to 18 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – three times the annual GHG emissions of the United States.

Destruction of Ozone Depleting Substances – How It Works

Carbon markets disrupt the  business-as-usual cycle of ODS recycle, reuse and leakage by providing a financial incentive for their destruction. The ODS destruction can generate carbon credits for reducing the emissions the ODS would have generated had they continue to be reused.

As an example carbon project, consider what happens to an old refrigerator that makes its way to an appliance disassembly facility. There, the CFC refrigerants are extracted from the compressor and aggregated with CFCs removed from other appliances and then sent in bulk to a facility where water, oil, and other contaminants are removed. The CFCs then undergo chemical analysis to establish their composition and purity. Next, the CFCs are sent to a waste management facility, where, under high temperature incineration, at least 99.99% of the CFCs are destroyed. Carbon offsets are created by quantifying the global warming impact avoided by destroying the CFCs, rather than letting them eventually leak into the atmosphere.

The Benefits

Carbon markets address the shortcoming of the Montreal Protocol. While disallowing further manufacture of ODS, the agreement failed to address the massive stocks already in existence. By eliminating these harmful substances, the ozone layer, our fragile protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, sees less damage.

Avoiding the release of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere is imperative to fight climate change. By volume, CFCs are far more powerful than CO2. Carbon markets provide the economic driver necessary to destroy CFCs, rather than allow them to escape into the atmosphere.

In addition, ODS destruction offers a driver to replace older equipment with newer, more energy efficient equipment. With a strong price signal from carbon markets, aging chillers may be taken out of service earlier than they otherwise would be. In addition, diminishing supply of CFC’s, and thus their increasing cost, helps to make uneconomic the continued use of CFC-dependent equipment in addition to driving the development of non-polluting CFC replacements. The increase in use of energy efficient equipment reduces GHG emissions, as well as other pollutants, while saving money.

Carbon Markets

Carbon markets provide a financial incentive, where none previously existed, to keep harmful refrigerants out of our atmosphere. First generated for voluntary carbon offsetting, offsets from ODS destruction are now accepted for legal compliance with California’s cap-and-trade program.

The financial incentive of carbon markets has resulted in ODS destruction and avoided emissions equivalent to tens of millions of tons of CO2  by companies such as Tradewater, A-Gas and Hudson Technologies.