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In 1989, when international signatories to the Montreal Protocol agreed to replace CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in refrigeration units worldwide with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), it was considered by most to be a positive move because CFCs were carving a hole in the ozone layer. Greenpeace, however, soon began protesting against the use of HFCs because HFCs, they said, would release huge amounts of extremely harmful greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing significantly to global warming.
That led to one of the most unlikely “green-tech” partnerships imaginable – and one that may become a powerful model for future environmental challenges.
On May 4, Greenpeace Solutions Director Amy Larkin joined high-level officials of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Unilever, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) at Harvard Kennedy School to receive the School’s prestigious Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership for their collaboration, called Refrigerants, Naturally! The 2011 Roy Award, given every second year to celebrate an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances the environment through creative approaches, was presented to this unusual alliance for championing the replacement of the environmentally-harmful fluorinated gases ("F-gases,” such as CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs) with natural refrigerants in commercial refrigeration installations. Natural refrigerants are climate and ozone friendly gases that exist naturally in the biosphere; i.e. ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons. The F-gases they aim to replace have a direct global warming impact more than a thousand times worse than a natural refrigerant like carbon dioxide.
The Refrigerants, Naturally! collaboration, which was launched in 2004, has worked successfully to overcome barriers to the use of natural refrigerants worldwide in supermarket freezer cases, vending machines, and frozen food and drink storage units. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions already have been prevented from entering the atmosphere as a result.
Prior to the award presentations, the recipients took part in a panel discussion at the Kennedy School titled “Keeping Our Cool: Promoting Green Technologies to Combat Climate Change.” They discussed the strategies that brought them together and have kept them united. “Something that causes 17 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases is something Greenpeace decided it had to address,” Larkin noted in discussing Greenpeace’s involvement in the issue and the development of Refrigerants, Naturally!
The alliance began at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 when Greenpeace launched a campaign with the slogan “Green Olympics: Dirty Sponsors.” The group’s protest of Coca-Cola’s and McDonald’s use of HFCs during the Olympics got the companies’ attention.
“It was that moment at Sydney that brought us together,” agreed Jeff Seabright, vice president for Coca-Cola’s Environment and Water Resources. In that same year, Coke, along with McDonald’s and Unilever, hosted a refrigeration summit where they, along with Greenpeace, UNEP, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began exploring alternative refrigerant technologies to HFCs.
David Lustig, vice president for external affairs at Unilever, said his firm also had an “aha moment.” We looked in the mirror, he said, “and realized that what we were doing was contributing to greenhouse gases in a way that was not how we wanted to run our business.”
The reason Greenpeace and the companies have continued working together, Larkin told the audience, is because “we and they have stayed at the table and have had results.”
Those results include catalyzing a whole sector of corporations to adopt climate-friendly refrigeration, led by Coca-Cola’s announcement in 2009 that it would go HFC-free in all new equipment by 2015 and Unilever’s purchase of more than half a million HFC-free freezers for ice cream around the world and commitment for as many more by that date. The group’s efforts also contributed to a pledge in 2010 by Consumer Goods Forum, a CEO-led organization of 400 global consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, to begin replacing HFC with natural refrigerants as of 2015.
Ellen Roy, panelist and member of the family that established the Roy Award in 2001, said, “Greenpeace may have been the instigator [for Refrigerants, Naturally!,] but the coalition of public and private partnership was essential.”
“I can’t stress enough the need for courage by individuals in corporations to get this kind of thing done,” Larkin said, praising the efforts of her corporate partners. “These people have led the transformation of a sector to eliminate harmful greenhouse gases.”
What’s needed now, added Rajendra Shende, head of the ozone action branch of UNEP, is for policymakers and the private sector to get aligned.
Panel moderator Henry Lee, director of the HKS Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Environment and Natural Resources Program that coordinates the Roy Award, asked why the natural refrigerant technology, which has been used in Europe for many years, has not yet been approved in the United States. Larkin suggested that “very, very effective” chemical industry lobbyists have played a major role. Other panelists noted that there had been concern by the EPA over approving “flammable” gases despite the fact that technology has been built to prevent problems and there have been no known cases of fires or explosions from natural refrigerants anywhere in the world.
The panelists noted that the EPA is currently allowing a test of natural refrigerants and seems likely to approve the technology for the United States within the next few months.