Yale’s Lurking Greenhouse Gas Problem

Graphic by Robert Samec

The refrigerant gases that cool our air and refrigerate our food are warming the atmosphere at disastrous rates, and Yale doesn’t have a plan to act.

These gases are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. While your fridge may not have an exhaust pipe, these gases inevitably leak into the atmosphere during the operating lifespan of cooling equipment.

Just a small amount of HFC has a massive impact on the atmosphere. All the refrigerators in the Yale dining system, for example, contain enough refrigerant to cause the equivalent emissions as 10,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or roughly 7 percent of Yale’s total emissions last year. These effects quickly add up across campuses, grocery stores, and the world at large. 

Due to greater demand for cooling and rapid infrastructure growth in developing countries, HFCs are among the fastest-growing climate pollutants in the world. Today, you can find them in just about every air conditioner, refrigerator, and vending machine. 

Scientists estimate that a global phasedown of HFCs will prevent half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century—one quarter of the emissions goal outlined in the Paris Agreement. HFC emissions can be reduced quickly and easily in two ways: by preventing refrigerants from escaping into the atmosphere, and by buying equipment that uses climate-friendly refrigerants. Climate-friendly refrigerators are already available on the market. 

Surprisingly, HFCs were actually a solution to the biggest environmental problem of the late 20th century: the hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole. The previous generation of refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), heavily depleted the ozone layer. The United Nations solved this problem by phasing down CFCs and replacing them with HFCs, gases with zero ozone-depleting potential, but with high capacity to warm the atmosphere. 

Yale, like the vast majority of institutions in the world, relies on HFCs for daily operations and continues to use older strains of refrigerant that deplete the ozone layer. Beyond dining hall refrigerators, there are hundreds of lab refrigerators that make research possible, and a rising number of ultra-cool freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine. In a normal year, there would also be nearly 2,000 student mini-fridges emitting HFCs on campus. 

Currently, refrigerant technicians and facilities managers do an excellent job of meeting HFC leak guidelines established by the EPA. Unfortunately, these regulations—some of which allow 30 percent of a refrigerator’s HFC to leak into the atmosphere each year—frequently do not protect against high climate impact.

Yale must address its refrigerant problem on campus. But to date, the university has not developed a campus strategy to phase down and better manage these gases. 

If refrigerant leakage can be contained, and if there are already alternative refrigerants to HFC on the market, why hasn’t Yale already taken action? The answer isn’t surprising: there are no economic incentives to encourage the university to wean itself off of HFC.

Throughout this year, the Yale Refrigerants Initiative, an undergraduate team that I direct, has been outlining solutions to the refrigerant problem on campus. 

The most efficient way to create these incentives would be to integrate refrigerant emissions into the Yale Carbon Charge, a program that taxes campus buildings for their carbon dioxide emissions. For every pound of refrigerant leaked into the atmosphere, buildings would have to pay a $40 charge. Since it would now be more expensive to leak refrigerants into the atmosphere, building managers would be incentivized to invest in transitioning away from HFCs and in reducing leaks beyond what is required by law. 

The first step in pricing refrigerants is understanding where cooling equipment is located on campus, and how much refrigerant there is. That’s why our team is conducting a refrigerant inventory, a process in which we record the sources of refrigerants on campus in a database. This process has taken us into crawl spaces in Jonathan Edwards and onto the roof of Silliman. We’ll go wherever the refrigerants are. 

While I’m not expecting everyone to devote their Saturdays to refrigerant hunting,  I hope that refrigerants will become a bigger part of climate conversations on campus. By engaging in these important discussions and translating this awareness into advocacy, we can hold Yale accountable to its climate commitments. 

Earth Day, for all of us in the environmental community, is a day to recommit to climate action and sustainability in our daily lives. But it’s also a poignant reminder that time is running out.

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