Bringing HFCs to the Table on Climate and Health

By Christina Starr, EIA Global Climate Fellow

Climate change may be “the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century” and one which will put the wellbeing of billions of people around the world at increased risk. The impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on human health include the effects of air pollution on increased respiratory disease, the spread of vector-borne illnesses like cholera, malaria, and dengue fever due to changing weather patterns, and compromised agricultural production and food security leading to greater malnutrition.

This week in Geneva at the Conference on Health and Climate, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on national and local policymakers to take action with a focus on preventative measures to lessen future impacts of climate change on health. This call to action is also an opportunity for policymakers to integrate the impact of a class of super GHGs, known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), into climate and health planning.

What are HFCs and how do they contribute to the negative health impacts of climate change?

HFCs are a family of gases emitted into the atmosphere mainly from use in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, though they also have applications as solvents, foams, aerosols, and fire retardants. Most importantly, they have a warming effect hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide and are the fastest-growing GHGs in many countries. Indeed, HFC emissions may account for up to 0.5°C of warming by the end of this century. Reducing HFC emissions is therefore a critical component of preventative action to limit health impacts from the most extreme changes in weather patterns.

How can policymakers implement HFC-free policies?

In its key message to national and local policymakers this week, the WHO is urging a “lead by example” approach in addressing the ‘carbon footprint’ of public institutions. Below are three easy and cost-effective ways policymakers and public institutions can reduce their HFC emissions and lead by example to strengthen policy linkages between climate and health:

1. Invest in climate friendly alternatives to HFCs through public procurement

From cafeteria refrigerators, to water coolers, to air conditioning systems for office buildings, to motor vehicle air conditioners, there are a wide range of products and appliances that public institutions consume that may contain HFCs. Fortunately, there are also a wide range of climate friendly technologies that use natural alternatives like hydrocarbons, CO2, ammonia, and even air and water to significantly reduce or eliminate the need for HFCs in refrigeration. Many of these technologies also provide the added bonus of cost-effective energy efficiency gains, thereby further reducing the carbon footprint of institutions from indirect emissions due to electricity consumption.

The WHO and other international organizations in Geneva are leading by example with the Geneva-Lake-Nations Project, which uses cold water from Lake Geneva to cool buildings, thereby reducing the need for chemical refrigerants. Buildings linked to systems using thermal cooling from water sources often see their electricity consumption decrease by as much as 80 percent. Through climate friendly procurement and projects like these, public institutions can support the scaling up of climate friendly technologies, phase down HFCs, and increase the energy efficiency of public buildings.

2. Mitigate HFC emissions in the health sector

The cold chain for transporting, distributing, and storing medical supplies at chilled temperatures is a significant source of HFC consumption in the health sector. By replacing freezers and refrigerators used to keep medicines, vaccines, and other medical supplies cold in labs, clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies with appliances that use HFC-free refrigerants, the health sector can lead the way on reducing climate impacts of HFCs.

Companies making climate friendly refrigerators and freezers for biomedical applications include Mayekawa, which uses air as a refrigerant, and Vestfrost’s ‘Green Line’ biomedical freezers and refrigerators and Sure Chill vaccine refrigerators, both of which use propane, a climate friendly refrigerant.

3. Participate in partnerships and networks

Many local, national, and international networks and resources exist that provide support to policymakers seeking information and enrichment from local knowledge and experiences. For example, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is a voluntary partnership of governments, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations, through which many countries and institutions have already begun work to inventory HFC use, gather case studies on alternative technologies, and share knowledge about HFC emissions reduction strategies among other short-lived climate pollutants. By participating in networks and partnerships, policymakers and institutions not only develop awareness and understanding, but also share knowledge about the best practices for incorporating HFC emissions into GHG accounting, and best implement integrated emission reduction plans that include HFCs.

Fast action to reduce HFC use is easy and possible due to many cost-effective and energy efficient alternatives, and has the potential to achieve near-term climate benefits that will help address the global health threat posed by climate change.

For more information on HFC-free alternative technologies or information on HFC-free procurement, contact Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA International Climate Policy Analyst at amahapatra (at)

Please visit EIA’s website for more information and resources on the global campaign to phase down HFCs.