Letters From The Earth

The air conditioning conundrum

By Calvin Frost, Contributing Editor | September 1, 2012

I really don’t like to read newspapers, particularly American newspapers and British tabloids.  They contain so much junk and sleaze.  I just can’t stand them. But, when I travel I am a devotee of the International Herald Tribune (IHT) which is now the global edition of the New York Times. In fact, I am almost a fanatic about reading the IHT when I’m outside the US.  The addiction was so bad at one point I convinced my wife to give me a gift subscription for six months.  That didn’t work, by the way. Delivery was always a week late and I couldn’t keep up with the stacks of late issues.

I like the IHT because the writing is superb. The reports and special columns are succinct and, as far as I can figure, accurate and unbiased. Furthermore, there are focused reports and editorials on the environment. I frequently draw analogies to issues in our industry.  This happened several weeks ago when I was traveling in Europe for four days.  I’d been watching reports on the ecosphere meetings in Rio de Janeiro (Rio + 20) on television. Doom and gloom all over. Money spent and nothing getting done. The scenes that I saw on television were reinforced by an article and editorial in two different IHT issues. One was a focus story on the sale of air conditioners in the Asia Pacific region; the other, an editorial on the meeting in Rio. They are emblematic of the situation in our industry. Let me explain.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and a member of the U.N. Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, wrote an editorial in IHT’s June 19 edition. Brundtland confirms what we all know, that governments throughout the world are not making the changes that will resolve the global sustainability crisis. He writes: “The scientific evidence is clear that the environmental dangers are rising quickly. Based on current trends, we are likely to move toward a world warmer by three degrees,” (I’m not sure if he means Celsius because 2 degrees C is about 4 degrees Fahrenheit), “and we may well cross tipping points with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Brundtland contends we need a new contract between science and society where leaders demand support for a more harmonized approach to global sustainability. In my view, it’s just not going to happen. We’re already seeing catastrophic changes. Here in America we’re experiencing the worst drought ever recorded. This will affect our corn and soybean crops. And since we export large quantities of both it will affect the world food markets. This will result in higher food prices because there will be less supply.  We’ve had raging wildfires in the west that have destroyed homes and livestock. We know that the arctic cap is melting at an unprecedented rate which is causing the oceans to rise. 

Mr. Brundtland is too nice.  And, I think he’s wrong if he thinks the present governments will fix climate change.  India won’t do anything, China lies, and the poor countries of Africa are barely surviving, much less effecting change.  There has to be a culture change, a demand from you and me, that politicians pass the kind of laws that will require all of us in the Western hemisphere to make meaningful contributions.  I’m talking big business commitment to change or they pay a penalty. 

So, while Brundtland is pleading for humanity to act decisively to make change in the June 19 edition of the IHT, Elizabeth Rosenthal and Andrew Lehren, in the June 21 edition, are telling a
story about the surge in air conditioner sales in the Asia-Pacific region that have increased gas emissions to the point where by 2050 they will represent 27 % of all global warming. Obviously there’s a dynamic here that really reinforces the conundrum that exists throughout the world. On the one hand we want to reduce global warming to prevent catastrophic events. On the other hand we want better living conditions for those living in poverty.  How do we harmonize these two dynamics? I’ll give you my solution in a minute. First, the air conditioner story.

In developing countries, an air conditioner is the first step to reaching the middle class. Air conditioning sales are growing at 20-25% a year in India and China and as middle classes grow they become more affordable. With rising temperatures air conditioners are almost a must. As an example of the growth, the city of Mumbai alone has been estimated to have a quarter of the air conditioners in the entire United States. That’s one city.

However, there’s a problem. In 1987 air conditioning gases were regulated by the Montreal Protocol which was created to protect the ozone layer which blocks the ultraviolet rays of the sun.  Sadly, while the mandate seemed to work on helping the ozone layer, it ignored global warming.  Pound for pound these same gases that are emitted by RACs contribute to global warming thousands of times more than does carbon dioxide. 

Concentrations of the newer, ozone-friendly gases, known as hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs, are also rising meteorically, because industrialized countries began switching to them a decade ago. All new air conditioners in the United States now use an HFC coolant called 410a, labeled “environmentally friendly” because it spares the ozone.  But its warming effect is 2,100 times than that of carbon dioxide.

The treaty timetable requires dozens of developing countries, including China and India, to also begin switching from HCFCs to gases with less impact on the ozone next year. But the United States and other wealthy nations are prodding them to choose ones that do not warm the planet. None of the this means anything because the sales of air conditioners in developing countries have grown enormously. We can change to more benign technology but not enough to overcome the huge growth of the air conditoning industry. In 2011, 55% of new air conditioning units were sold in the Asia-Pacific region and the industry’s production has moved there. Last year, China built 70% of the world’s air conditioners, for domestic use and export.

With inexpensive HCFC-22 from Asia flooding the market, efforts to curb or eliminate its use have been undercut, even in the United States. For example, although American law now forbids the sale of new air conditioners containing HCFC, stores have started selling empty units, or components, that can be filled with the gas after installation, enabling its continued use.
What a mess. On the one hand you want the needy to improve their lifestyle with better living conditions.  On the other hand, should it be done at the expense of the environment?

I always harken back to Lester Brown’s solutions. Cigarette manufacturers should be responsible for the total cost of their product, including covering health care costs for lung cancer patients. Energy producers should be responsible for the total cost for their products:  gas, oil and coal, which create carbon which affects global warming.  If these manufacturers were responsible for the problems they create, a pack of cigarettes would be $25.00 and a gallon of gas would be $50.00.  Think what would happen: people would stop buying cigarettes and gasoline and the share prices of these companies would fall.

Let’s take it a step further.  If the OEM’s that make pressure sensitive labelstock and flexible packaging material were to pay for the entire cost of their materials, including disposal of non-recyclable byproduct, they’d have to charge more money which night cause their customers to look at alternative technologies.  The alternative, as I’ve said in earlier columns, is to create take-back schemes so their customers don’t have the cost of disposal which should be considered part of total cost.

Mr. Brundtland has it right. We must make changes. However, I believe the responsibility lies with the industries that create the problem in the first place, the energy industry, the air conditioner industry, the tobacco industry and the packaging industry.  What do you think?  Thank you International Herald Tribune for the ideas.
Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is
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