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China Signals Intention to Transition To Truly Low-GWP Alternatives

By Christina Starr, Policy Analyst

China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office under the Ministry of Environmental Protection (FECO), recently published the ‘First Catalogue of Recommended Substitutes for HCFCs.’ The catalogue lists natural low-GWP alternatives as the only substitutes it will support and accept in all but four types of equipment for the more than a dozen refrigeration and air conditioning end-uses. The catalogue sends a strong signal that China intends to move overwhelmingly toward natural substitutes. According to market intelligence firm China Chemicals Market (CCM) after publishing a list like this one, China will likely promulgate more substantial policies to promote natural refrigerants, detergents, and foaming agents over the coming years.

Momentum has been building towards a global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the manmade, super greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning, among other uses. The big question is now—after nearly two decades of chemical transitions—will the world choose substitutes that stand the test of time? Or will we continue to spin our wheels by moving only to mid- and high range global warming potentials (GWPs) refrigerants?

Countries seeking to enact policies to reduce HFC emissions are presented with a variety of competing options for new substitutes. For almost all uses, there are natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, ammonia, carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and even air as well as not-in-kind technologies such as solar cooling with GWP from 0 to 20 (for reference, the GWP of CO2 is 1). The manufacturers of CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs are producing a range of new fluorinated chemicals with GWP from 3 to 1500 as permanent and interim replacements to HFCs, which would most likely need to be replaced again. However, leapfrogging HFCs and HFC-blends and transitioning to truly low-GWP alternatives immediately will have the greatest impact on reducing the rate of climate change.

This announcement is incredibly important as China manufactures 70-80 percent of the world’s air conditioners and refrigerators and is a major driver of the global marketplace. With this catalogue, China is indeed strongly signaling its intent to step off of the HFC treadmill and that it will not be choosing mid-and high range HFCs and HFC blends.

While leading the world in transitioning away from HFCs, China can—and must—continue this momentum if we hope to globally phase down HFCs to close the pre-2020 gigatonne mitigation gap and help keep the global warming below two degrees Celsius—which scientists agree is necessary to prevent runaway climate change. For example, there are proven climate-friendly alternatives for at least two of the four types of equipment where the Chinese catalogue still recommends the continued use of HFCs, hydrocarbons in condensing units, and CO2 for heat pump water heaters. China should consider whether the use of HFCs is still warranted in these two uses. We look forward to seeing China back up this catalogue with policies that will ensure a transition to the substitutes listed as quickly as possible.

With China’s robust signal that it will move away from HFCs, we have the chance to make this global phase-down of refrigerants the last necessary phase-down and maximize its near term climate mitigation.

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