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Refrigerant Phaseout: HCFCs, HFCs, and the Paris Accord

September 16, 2020, marked the 33-year anniversary of the original Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that phases out substances that deplete the ozone layer. Use of CFC refrigerants is now banned in the U.S., and new production and import of most hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were phased out as of 2020. Replacing these HCFCs in new equipment and for system retrofit are many new hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, and HFC-blend refrigerants that include R-410A and R-407C.

When the first stage of the Montreal Protocol took effect in 1987, most countries were primarily concerned with ozone depletion potential (ODP), and global warming potential (GWP) was scarcely on the radar. First-generation CFCs like R-11, R-12, and R-502 were gradually replaced with HCFCs (and some HFCs) with much-lower ozone depletion potential (ODP). The highly-popular HCFC R-22 has a pound-for-pound ODP that is roughly eighteen times lower than the CFCs it replaced. As an added benefit, the global warming potential for most HCFCs is at least six times lower than CFCs.


The second stage of the Montreal Protocol was a gradual migration from second-generation HCFCs to third-generation HFCs, which have zero ODP. Production and import of virgin HCFC have now ceased and all new systems are prohibited from using these refrigerants. Once new HCFC stores are depleted, repairs can only be done with reclaimed refrigerant that has been cleaned and reprocessed. These supplies will become increasingly scarce as time goes on, as well, and prices will continue to rise. Building owners who still employ cooling systems that use HCFCs like R-22 should consider equipment replacement if they have not done so already.


The elimination of HCFCs in favor of HFCs has been complicated by the enactment of the Paris Agreement, a global pact aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Though President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris accord several years ago, President-Elect Biden has pledged to immediately rejoin following his January 20, 2021 inauguration. Under the voluntary agreement, third-generation HFC refrigerants that, until recently, were acceptable under the Montreal Protocol are now either outlawed by participating nations (with substantial supply and use restrictions, or new equipment bans) or are in active phase-out due to their elevated global warming potential.


Even though HFCs are still permitted here in the U.S., users considering near-term replacement decisions should take into consideration the fact that some states and municipalities will side with the international community by scaling back or banning HFCs in favor of low-to-zero GWP hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and natural gas refrigerants. Some commercial equipment using natural gases and HFOs are already available on the U.S. market.


Many high- and medium-GWP HFCs that are currently available will likely be targeted for replacement in the near future, followed by their likely replacements. Additionally, all manufacturers and nations are considering moves to implement natural gas refrigerants that satisfy both the Montreal Protocol and Paris accord, but with several other design and use considerations.


MSC can help clients implement HCFC-to-HFC system retrofits and replacements, and we also provide expert consultation for owners interested in leapfrogging to fourth-generation HFO or natural gas conversions or new systems. For more information, contact us at (973) 884-5000.