Old Air Conditioners and Refrigerators Are Keeping Us From Healing the Ozone Hole

A man rips an air conditioner unit during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Sept. 2019. (AP Photo/Edris Fortune)
A man rips an air conditioner unit during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Sept. 2019. (AP Photo/Edris Fortune)
Photo: AP

In the 1930s, manufacturers began using chlorofluorocarbons—greenhouse gases made up of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine—as refrigerants for air conditioners, aerosol sprays, refrigerators, freezers, and more. The problem is, those chemicals depleted the ozone layer of the atmosphere, which blocks the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. That ozone depletion caused warming in the Earth’s coldest regions. In response to that growing hole in the ozone, in 1987 international leaders ratified the Montreal Protocol, pledging to stop using CFCs, so for the most part, they’re not used in production anymore, and the atmosphere is recovering slowly.


However, recent measurements show that emissions of one type of CFC, CFC-11, have actually increased since 2013 despite global reports of near-zero production since 2010. And atmospheric concentrations of other types haven’t been decreasing as quickly as researchers had projected. How is that possible?

Well, one major reason is that old products containing CFCs still emit the chemicals. And a new study, published in Nature on Tuesday, shows those stores—especially of CFC-11 and CFC-12—are much larger than previously thought. Both kinds were once commonly used as aerosol-spray propellants, refrigerants, solvents, and foam-blowing agents.

“We wanted to know how much emissions may be coming from old banks of materials versus new, illegal production,” the study’s lead author, Megan Lickley, told Earther in an email.

The researchers developed a statistical model to assess the size of CFC stores. They estimate that emissions from current CFC banks could delay the recovery of the ozone hole by up to six years, creating a warming effect equivalent to 9 billion metric tons of carbon. For context, that’s the amount of carbon produced by using a billion gallons of gasoline.

“CFCs are harmful greenhouse gases,” Lickley told Earther. “Pound per pound, their warming effect is between 5,000 and 10,000 times stronger than CO2.”


There are definitely other sources of these chemical emissions, including manufacturers, unwittingly or not, using them illegally. But to the climate, eliminating those CFCs would have a huge effect.

The Montreal Protocol doesn’t prohibit the use of old materials that contain CFCs, but policymakers have considered how to destroy CFC banks to help safeguard the ozone and climate.


“While 100% destruction of the banks is unrealistic, certainly some material can be recovered and destroyed (for example, via soil degradation of foams by careful burial in landfills instead of shredding,” the study says.

The study highlights the need for world leaders to figure out how to recover, locate, and dispose of these materials—and then to do so as fast as possible. There are definitely other sources of these chemical emissions, including manufacturers, unwittingly or not, using them illegally, and civic leaders should tackle those, too.


Doing so could prevent massive warming in the Arctic and Antarctic, which could help preserve glaciers and thereby prevent sea level rise. We’ll still have to rapidly phase out of emitting other kinds of greenhouse gases, of course. But if we get the HFCs part right, studies show the hole in the ozone could heal in our lifetimes.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


A Drop of Hell, A Touch of Strange

I don’t imagine there are too many working refrigeration devices from before 1987 that haven’t been converted. I’d bet improper disposal of the older devices is likely the culprit, alongside the decay out of foams and other materials made with CFCs. No one’s paying a technician to capture the gas when they junk an old car, a/c unit or fridge. They just cut the pipe before they bring it to the scrapyard.

And all those are prime targets because there’s aluminum and copper in them. People would steal those off people’s houses in my area until the county required a license to scrap metal. But even the ones who aren’t thieves aren’t spending the money to do it properly.

Maybe a program to get the scrapyards to do the gas removal or serve as a collection point for an environmental agency to do it as well as paying scrappers a premium for intact machines to discourage tampering could be a start with that side of the problem.

When faced with economic challenges people will do anything to survive, even if it kills them. I knew one old scrapper with a terminal illness who likely brought the end on faster by trying out the toxic methods used to extract valuable metals from electronics.