Why natural refrigerants are key to global carbon reduction targets

Boris Arnaud, AC Product and Marketing Director, EMEA, Systemair, writes on the critical role that air conditioning and refrigeration plays in modern life

In solidarity with World Refrigeration Day, Boris Arnaud, AC Product and Marketing Director, EMEA, Systemair, writes on the critical role that air conditioning and refrigeration play in modern life and why natural refrigerants are key to unlocking global carbon reduction targets.

There is a global move to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has placed the need to secure global net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to keep 1.5 degrees C within reach as one of its core goals. The EU has also recently ratified ambitious new targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels to set Europe on a path to becoming climate neutral by 2050.

As we celebrate World Refrigeration Day on June 26 and commemorate the significant role that the refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump sector plays in our everyday life, it is also ample time to discuss how our industry contributes to these global targets.

How natural refrigerants can reduce carbon emissions

This sets the stage for a necessary discussion on refrigerants, which lie at the heart of these technologies. Natural refrigerants are key to moving the needle in the global community’s move to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Any progress in the right direction will go a long way, in view of the massive benefit natural refrigerants offer compared to the most common refrigerants in the market, which are a source of greenhouse gases.

The Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) issue has been addressed in the past years in Europe, which has moved from R22 to R410A or R407C. The next challenge is now to drastically reduce refrigerants’ Global Warming Potential (GWP), which refers to the impact that gas would have on the earth over a period of time. The higher the GWP, the more that it warms the earth. Natural refrigerants such as ammonia (R717), CO2 (R744), propane (R290) and water (H20), have an extremely low GWP. A traditional refrigerant such as R410A has a GWP of 2500, while

the natural media R290 (propane) has a GWP of 3. For a small heat pump of 35kw capacity, this is equivalent to move from 21-ton equivalent CO2 to close to 0 (0,01) CO2 ton equivalent.

The shift to natural refrigerants also ensures the long-term sustainability of installed systems. Studies show that the annual leakage rate could reach up to 30%. It is imperative that we, as an industry, drive and raise awareness on the adoption of natural refrigerants in air conditioning equipment to push for more sustainable and efficient products in the market.

The global refrigerant landscapes

Although there is positive momentum in the adoption of refrigerants, and we are observing an ever-increasing interest from stakeholders, it still is a niche market with trends varying among regions. Europe is globally leading the F-Gas reduction, and the carbon green deal is now pushing the adoption of more environmentally friendly refrigerants. However, the level of adoption and activity is still dependent on the wish of each member state. Nordic countries are leading the adoption of natural refrigerants underscored by the decision to place a high tax on GWP.

In other regions, such as the Middle East and Africa, there is generally a slower pace in adoption. The reason behind the reluctance of some countries to opt for solutions with natural refrigerants vary.

Undoubtedly, there are several new challenges that come with the use of natural refrigerants, such as flammability, toxicity, or high pressure resulting in concerns related to safety. Some time is needed for stakeholders in these markets to adequately address the readiness of the technology, in terms of validating its performance, reliability, footprint, efficiency and other functions. There is also a need for specialised consultants that have a greater understanding of these newer technologies.

Cost is another concern among end-users. The use of natural refrigerants has, for now, a significant price impact since the technology remains niche, but the market is moving towards this direction, which should help to reduce the cost of the technology.

Overall, natural refrigerants gaining a wider integration with products in the market would also depend on the market application, since the thermodynamic property can be very different between refrigerants. For small chillers and heat pumps, propane (R290) is a very good candidate and will surely continue to grow in the coming years.

Despite these challenges, the inevitable move towards natural refrigerants should still be a consideration

for building owners, as they are in the position to future-proof their developments by opting for sustainable technologies today. Choosing a natural refrigerant now is making the choice to comply with all possible regulation in terms of GWP. This is the benefit of opting for a truly green heat pump and chiller technology.

Boris Arnaud, AC Product and Marketing Director, EMEA, Systemair

How manufacturers can drive adoption

At Systemair, as a global manufacturer, we are aware of the role we play in promoting the use of natural refrigerants. We are also committed to the cause beyond just our products, such as through running academies to educate the market on the benefits of using natural refrigerants and its contribution to carbon neutrality.

Systemair decided to show the path by developing equipment accommodating natural refrigerants, addressing issues related to performance and safety and investing into an innovative heat pump, ‘Sysaqua Blue’ which uses propane as refrigerant. Even though we understand that not all markets are ready for such systems, we truly believe this is the future of our technology and are committed to taking a leadership role in the use of natural refrigerants in the development of more sustainable and efficient products.