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Montreal Protocol Seeks Progress on Standards for HFC-free Technologies

by Christina Starr and Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA Global Climate Campaign

Parties to the Montreal Protocol met last month in Vienna to negotiate a global phase down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), super-greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a speech in Vienna, John Kerry called the HFC agreement, “one of the single most important unitary steps that we could possibly take at this moment to stave off the worst impacts of climate change…”

As negotiations progress toward reaching an agreement this year, industry standards and building codes for refrigeration and air conditioning equipment have emerged as a salient topic, as if unchanged, they can prove to be potentially significant hurdles to the successful implementation of an HFC phase-down. Several developments in the Vienna meetings, however give us hope that increased attention will be paid to the need for governments, industry stakeholders, and standards bodies to work together. All stakeholders must constructively coordinate efforts to update global and national standards to protect public health while incorporating new scientific and technical developments.

The need for comprehensive and timely standards updates

In many countries around the world including and especially in the United States, HFC-free technologies face barriers to widespread uptake due to outdated, overly restrictive, or even non-existent standards. A new EIA Issue Brief, “The Need for Smarter Standards in Cooling” explains why this is the case and introduces some key standards bodies and technical issues needing re-evaluation. As the briefing explains, limitations on the amount of flammable refrigerant, or “charge size thresholds” are one of the key parameters of current standards needing the most attention. The amount of charge size considered ‘safe’ is dependent on a number of assumptions which are outdated and overly restrictive in many current standards.

It is critical that standards updates are comprehensive, and “technology neutral”, allowing for the broadest range of available HFC-free technologies (including technologies using natural alternatives such as hydrocarbons, ammonia, and carbon dioxide). Comprehensive updates also means accounting for the full range of available safety measures and technologies including safety devices such as leak detectors, shut-off-valves, and the use of modern warnings, leak tightness testing, and installation restrictions, all of which would allow for larger charge size thresholds still safe for market uptake of various climate-friendly alternatives.

It is also vital that timely updates are made in order to meet policy goals of near-term replacement and leapfrogging of HFCs. This can be challenging due to the resource intensiveness of the standards development process, which requires input from highly qualified technical experts and in some cases, additional research and testing. It is particularly critical that in cases where low-GWP technology is already widely proven around the world, but blocked from reaching certain markets by the national standard of an individual country or region. This is the case with low-GWP hydrocarbons in domestic refrigeration in North America, the focus of another EIA briefing that describes how U.S. and North American regional standards bodies can act swiftly to harmonize and adopt global best practices in time to meet proposed policy deadlines.

Signs of progress

Three developments from the Vienna meetings point to increasing level of recognition of the need for timely and comprehensive standards updates:

  1. Countries agreed to proposed text recognizing the importance of “timely updating international standards for flammable low-GWP refrigerants including … promoting actions that allow safe market introduction, as well as manufacturing, operation, maintenance and handling of zero-GWP or low-GWP refrigerant alternatives to HCFCs and HFCs.”

  2. The U.S. announced that California will additionally contribute $500,000 to a joint research and testing program in collaboration with the Department of Energy, the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). The goal of this program is to advance safety standards to allow for widespread use of climate-friendly refrigerants in the United States and internationally. There seems to be lack of clarity as to which refrigerants and equipment will be covered and fast tracked into updated U.S. standards under this program. Sufficient participation and contribution by the full range of stakeholders is vital for this research to represent the full range of low-GWP alternatives.

  3. China, which is seeking to expand production of low-GWP equipment, submitted a draft proposal to establish regular consultations on safety standards to make efforts towards “technology-neutral” updates to safety standards. The proposal recommended establishing a task force on standards to report to the next Montreal Protocol meeting on progress in revision of international standards, information on tests and assessments, and implications for implementation of decisions under the potential HFC phase-down. The proposal also suggested provision for maintaining or increasing funding available through the Multilateral Fund’s technical and capacity-building assistance program with a view to improving cooperation between countries and national and regional standards committees.

The path forward

There is increased recognition of the need for coordination on updating standards, including the potential for a formal mechanism under the Montreal Protocol to build capacity for this process to occur. As things move forward, it is essential that stakeholders from governments, industry, standards setting bodies, and non-governmental organizations provide their feedback and inputs into research and testing regimes. It is also vital that updates occur with the right balance of timeliness and comprehensiveness sanctioning the broadest range of low-GWP alternatives. Otherwise, an amendment under the Montreal Protocol may be effective only on paper.

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