Take Action Against Greenhouse Gases With Your Shopping Dollars!
Despite grim new warnings on climate change from the United Nations, Australia is resisting making the necessary deep cuts in emissions. However, growing numbers of ordinary Aussies are not content to adopt the spectator role. Martin Oliver reports…
At an individual level, informed use of our purchasing power is one way of showing politicians we are committed to a greener world.
With media attention focused mainly on carbon dioxide, it is easy to forget that CO2 is just one among a list of greenhouse gases that are collectively pushing up temperatures. While carbon is deservedly the number one priority for global action, we can’t afford to lose sight of the big picture.
International agreement on climate change has previously centred on the Kyoto Protocol, under which every country aims for agreed greenhouse reductions. This gave birth to the term ‘CO2-equivalent’ that allows different gases, each with different CO2-equivalents, to be factored into the same calculation. Since 2012 the Kyoto Protocol has been in limbo while a new framework is negotiated.
These CO2-equivalent’ gases are rated by their global warming potential (GWP), usually over a 100-year time horizon, with carbon dioxide having a GWP figure of 1. Below are the most important of these gases, and some tips on how their emissions can be curbed.
SOOT (GWP N/A)
Usually missing from lists of greenhouse gases, this important emission comes from sources such as burning wood, industrial emissions, and older-style dirty diesel engines. Removing an older-style wood burning stove for a modern efficient replacement can cut down on particulates by 70 per cent. Wood can also be burned at a lower temperature in a special oven, producing biochar that is carbon-negative and can be used to fertilise the soil with impressive results.
METHANE (GWP 25)
Sources include melting permafrost, food waste or paper in landfill sites, livestock, fossil fuels, irrigated rice, and deforestation. Top priority is to compost organic waste and leftover food, while asking your local council to introduce a green waste bin. Another important step is to recycle paper and cardboard.
Going solar and switching to GreenPower are good ways to pull the plug on coal and gas. Buying grass-fed beef pushes up methane levels, but these are probably offset by the carbon-sequestering powers of grazed pastures. Carbon molecules from captured methane are being used in the production of a US-made carbon-negative plastic named AirCarbon™ (from Newlight Technologies), which doesn’t appear to be available in Australia yet.
NITROUS OXIDE (GWP 298)
Major sources of this chemical are vehicles, synthetic fertilisers, industrial emissions, and deforestation. To reduce soil emissions associated with synthetic fertilisers, don’t waste food, go easy on grains, and try to buy organic.
METHANE & NITROUS OXIDE
Global deforestation linked to both methane and nitrous oxide emissions is largely tied to agriculture, and Australian consumers can make a difference by avoiding palm oil or asking companies to use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).
GROUND-LEVEL OZONE (GWP N/A)
This is a byproduct caused by the reaction between nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds, and is a major component of smog. Unlike the ozone layer in the stratosphere, its presence at ground level has a negative effect on human health. Contributing sources include vehicles, power stations, industrial emissions and chemical solvents. Its lifespan is fortunately very short.
HYDROFLUOROCARBONS (HFCs, GWP 12-14,800)
Following the worldwide phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) starting in the 1990s, a substitute was needed, and hydrofluorocarbons came to prominence. These are the most commonly-used refrigerants in Australia despite some having a huge GWP, and although global trends are pointed upwards they are subject to a phase-out push. Other uses include as an aerosol spay and for blowing foam.
HYDROCHLOROFLUOROCARBONS (HCFCs, GWP 77-2310)
These chemicals arrived on the scene as an interim CFC substitute, but are still ozone-depleting to a lesser degree. Subject to a staged phase-out in developed countries, they are sometimes used in Australia. Again, uses include refrigeration, aerosol sprays, and blowing foam.
HOW TO BUY FRIDGES AND FREEZERS
Better substitute refrigerants from an environmental standpoint include carbon dioxide, hydrofluoroolefins (GWP around 4-6), and hydrocarbons (GWP around 3-11) such as ethane, propane, pentane, and butane. Like carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon refrigerants have the added benefit of being more energy efficient than fluorocarbons. For Australian consumers, they are widely used in Electrolux, Miele, Vestfrost, and Liebherr fridges and freezers. When hunting down hydrocarbon air conditioners, the brand name to look for is Pioneer.
Inevitably a portion of the refrigerant in car air conditioning systems is lost to the atmosphere every year, giving most of these units elephant-sized ecological footprints; as a rule of thumb, the release of 1kg of fluorocarbon has the same greenhouse impact as two tonnes of carbon dioxide. Re-gas with a facility that uses hydrocarbons, and if cost is not a consideration then swap the existing refrigerant (most likely a fluorocarbon) with a hydrocarbon. Also ask for tiny leak holes to be identified and sealed directly after the refill.
Where a fridge or freezer is being disposed of, leakage into the atmosphere can have a similar environmental impact. Where such an item is dropped off at a waste facility, the local council is responsible, and often charges a fee for gas recovery unless the owner can provide a degas certificate. Similar gas recovery rules apply to unwanted domestic air conditioning units and for vehicle air con systems.
DISPOSAL OF OLD FRIDGES
In some areas of New South Wales, the government-run Fridge Buyback scheme allows some types of second fridges or upright freezers to be collected and responsibly recycled, usually cost-free to the householder, with a small incentive payment made in most cases. A similar program is being run by the electricity provider ActewAGL.
However, two knowledgeable industry insiders claim that for both cars and fridges there is widespread flouting of the law due to a combination of economic disincentives and insufficient policing. If they are correct, the only way to be sure that these highly damaging gases are recovered is to either use a fridge buyback scheme or to pay an accredited refrigeration technician, identifiable through a green and blue tick symbol.
Greenhouse gases found in insulation foam are always released when a fridge or freezer is recycled in Australia. Although recovery is technically feasible, the equipment needed for this is expensive and is yet to be introduced here. An obligation for these gases to be collected could be mandated at a federal level, and this is worth lobbying for.
PERFLUOROCARBONS (PFCs, GWP 7,390-12,200)
Perfluorocarbons such as hexafluoroethane and tetrafluoromethane are used as solvents for the electronics industry, for etching solar panels, and are released in aluminium production. As aluminium also has a very high embodied energy, there is an argument for minimising its use in the construction sector.
NITROGEN TRIFLUORIDE (GWP 17,200)
Another chemical widely used by the electronics industry, nitrogen trifluoride is commonly utilised in the manufacture of computer chips, and flat-panel displays including TVs, monitors, tablets and smartphones. As with perfluorocarbons, it is also used to etch solar panels. Worldwide consumption has gone through the roof, increasing forty-fold between 1992 and 2007. Originally omitted from the scope of the Kyoto Protocol, nitrogen trifluoride was belatedly added in 2013.
In addition to being difficult to determine which chemical was used in the production of an electronic gadget, environmentally sound alternatives are thin on the ground. Elemental fluorine is sometimes used as a non-greenhouse-gas alternative, but it is expensive and its toxicity risks need to be managed. Probably the best strategy is to rein in your technology budget, and consider buying secondhand.
SULFUR HEXAFLUORIDE (GWP 22,800)
Infamous for being the most greenhouse-polluting gas ever measured, sulphur hexafluoride is linked to a wide range of end uses. These include as an insulator in electrical equipment, in magnesium production (for magnesium alloy wheels), and for cleaning silicon production reactors (solar panels.) More oddball destinations can include as a filling for double-glazed windows, trainer soles, tennis balls, and high-performance vehicle tyres. Despite the potential for toxic contaminants, sometimes it is inhaled to lower the pitch of the voice. Ask for sulphur hexafluoride-free double glazing, tyres, trainers and tennis balls.
AUSTRALIA ‘GOING BACKWARDS
According to consensus opinion, the impact of high-GWP greenhouse gases used in solar panel manufacture is outweighed by the energy-saving benefits, with one 2010 study indicating that these impacts were offset within only a few months. We can hope that the industry will phase out the use of these environmentally damaging gases in favour of more benign substitutes, and in the meantime can express our views to the manufacturers.
While it was in effect, the carbon tax created a financial disincentive, proportional to their GWP, against the use of greenhouse gases. With its removal, Australia has gone backwards on meaningful action to tackle climate change, and with such an economic signal missing, informed and proactive consumers have a greater role to play in order to fill the gap.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).
GreenPower – greenpower.gov.au
AirCarbon – newlight.com
Fridge Buyback – fridgebuyback.com.au
ActewAGL Fridge Buyback – http://www.actewagl.com.au/Save-energy/Free-energy-services/Fridge-buyback.aspx
Look for the Tick (refrigerant handling licenses) – lookforthetick.com.au
Department of the Environment ozone site – environment.gov.au/protection/ozone