Do Explosive Refrigerants Count As 'Environmental Protection' ?
Some things get discovered before they are predicted. Once 19th century savants had explained that growing levels of carbon dioxide from the Industrial Revolution would trap heat from the sun, scientifically literate Victorians had no cause for surprise as temperatures rose in the 20th century.
Ozone depletion was completely different. It came as a scientific shock. Its explanation could only follow its detection, for its cause turned out to be something new to science and industry alike. A novel class of chemical compounds called Freons, developed in the 1930’s, proved unprecedented in their long atmospheric lifetime and ability to catalyze stratospheric photochemical reactions. They were capable of destroying ozone faster than sunlight could create it, thinning the ozone layer that shields us from sunburn by soaking up ultraviolet rays far overhead. The increasing transparency of the stratosphere, first noted over Antarctica, was amplified by the high concentrations of Freon molecules swept into the vortex perpetually swirling around the South Pole.
What was seen beginning in the coldest reaches of the sky could clearly spread out over more temperate and populated regions if nothing were done , for Freon releases into the atmosphere were growing as fast as consumer demand for refrigerators, air conditioners and spray cans. Once this was realized, a universal desire to stave off harm gave rise to an international treaty for the control of ozone depleting substances. It was President Reagan who signed it.
In contrast to global warming, ozone depletion involved a clear and present
cause and effect. The uncertainties of climate scarcely figured in the debate. Few doubted stratospheric chlorine had measurably doubled in the decades since the Freon’s invention and since atoms don’t wear out, each chlorine atom carried aloft into the stratosphere would doubtless demolish a long string of ozone molecules in succession. Experiments confirmed that a few shiploads of freon were enough alter the equilibrium protecting the earth from baleful ultraviolet rays, for brought to earth and liquefied; the ozone layer would be thin as the ink on a printed page.
The conclusion was clear- the annual release of the wrong stuff had to be cut back from millions of tons to tens of thousands to arrest the ozone layer’s slow decay. This meant cutting down on Freon manufacture globally. After Ronald Reagan ratified the Montreal Protocol annual CFC consumption in industrialized nations fell from about a million tons in 1986, to just tens of thousands in 2000.
CO2 is a much bigger deal. Freon production peaked at ounces per capita, but CO2 emissions are almost a million times larger - tons per person per year and proportionally hard to change- fire and internal combustion engines are not about to go away. In contrast production of CFC’s has plummeted , reducing their trade largely to refrigerant recycling ,and recovering CFC’s from plastic foam insulation manufactured in the last century.
However, while all atoms are created equal, the molecules that contain them are not. They vary enormously in both their physical properties, and importance in the technical economy.
The current crop of Montreal Protocol problems arise less from present environmental angst than past optimism in technology assessment.
In the 1980’s many naively thought free markets would find satisfactory substitutes for every ozone depleting chemical the treaty might eventually ban. It didn’t happen, which paradoxically may no be a bad thing .The problem, once cast in terms of sunburned penguins as harbingers of a temperate zone skin cancer epidemic has shifted from too little ozone in the stratosphere, to the climate impact of too much close to the ground. Global warming whistleblowers James Hansen now warns of “increased tropospheric ozone (O3), which is the 3rd largest Green House Gas forcing.”
In some cases substitution was both technically and economically trivial- anything volatile can propel hair spray out of a can, but here were very serious reasons for developing many ozone depleting chemicals in the first place, and it proved virtually impossible to invent substitutes for chemicals that had themselves enabled many 20th century inventions. Methyl bromide fungicides remain critical to global commerce in perishable foods, and Halon fire extinguishers are vital to transportation safety even though bromine depletes ozone faster than chlorine. When lives are at stake, failure of substitution is clearly a grave concern.
Few have studied the lessons for global warming policy taught by the regulatory successes, failures and excesses arising from the Montreal Protocol, or the unpredicted , but bureaucratically understandable way the UN’s ozone layer preserving substitute refrigerant mandate has expanded.
Six years after the World trade Center crashed and burned, some still worry about the fire next time. Not UNEP. It has blithely banned the world’s most potent fire fighting agent, Halon ,from the global marketplace, and aspires to seeing inert but atmospherically suspect refrigerants entirely replaced by ‘Green’ ones, even if they are toxic, explosive, or both. If in their rush to seem fashionably Green, legislators overlook the risks these pose, casualties-- and the risk of terror by fire-- may soar.
Safe home cooling has changed the nation’s demography. Once, newspapers were filled with accounts of deaths by explosion, of lungs corrupted and eyes blinded by refrigerators and air conditioners unleashing corrosive and explosive gases like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Before giving greens carte blanche, we should take a cold look backwards at the bad old days, when what they term ‘environmentally friendly’ refrigerants exploded lethally several times a year. Not one home in a thousand had an air conditioner when a roaring twenties methyl chloride fire claimed more victims than the Hindenburg holocaust. It could happen again all too easily if fire eating environmentalists get to rewrite building safety codes.