European Research Center Backs Climate-Friendly Coolant for Car Air Conditioners, Global Automakers Moving Forward

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) issued its final report last week reaffirming the safety of the new climate-friendly coolant for car air conditioners called HFO-1234yf (R-1234yf).  The European experts flatly rejected fire risk claims leveled 18 months ago by Daimler (the maker of Mercedes-Benz), concluding that extensive testing “provided no evidence of a serious risk.”

Car makers around the world are adopting the new coolant to meet European, American, and Japanese climate-protection standards that require replacement of the current coolant, HFC-134a (R-134a), which is a super-potent greenhouse gas.   Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia, Lexus, Maserati, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Subaru have each rolled out models using the new coolant.  The global transition is picking up speed.

The JRC report is the latest expert confirmation of the new coolant’s safety.  Last year, SAE International (formerly called the Society of Automotive Engineers) rejected Daimler’s tests as “unrealistic” and “highly improbable,” presenting a hypothetical risk nearly a million times lower than all other car fire risks combined. 

Eliminating R-134a is a high priority for climate protection.  The heat-trapping difference between the old and new coolants is enormous.  According to the latest IPCC report (see Table 8.A.1), R-134a has a heat-trapping “global warming potential” of 1300 – 1300 times the heat-trapping punch of carbon dioxide (GWP=1).  R-1234yf has a GWP less than 1 – less than 1/1300th the heat-trapping power of the coolant it is replacing. 

That means just one day of producing cars with the old coolant has as much damaging climate impact as more than three and a half years of car production with the new one.  

Since 2012 European Union regulations have required a progressive phase-out of R-134a as new car models are re-designed, with all new cars to be converted by the 2017 model year.  R-134a is also being eliminated from new cars in the U.S. under the landmark clean car standards issued by the Obama administration in 2010 and 2012. 

Daimler has engaged in an 18-month battle to block the change-over and to keep using R-134a indefinitely.  In September 2012, just a week after joining other German car makers in endorsing the switch to the new coolant, Daimler suddenly flip-flopped.  Daimler’s safety claims have now been repeatedly rejected by German and European safety authorities, and by the global auto industry’s own safety experts. 

Daimler has vaguely promised to adopt CO2-based air conditioners some unspecified time in the future.  Most experts, however, doubt the CO2 system will work efficiently, especially in hot climates like the American Southwest, the Middle East, or India.  In other words, the CO2-based air conditioners will likely consume more gasoline (and produce more CO2 pollution) struggling to keep cars cool.  R-1234yf will cool better in those hot places, while consuming less gasoline.  

The European Commission has filed an enforcement action (called an infringement proceeding) against Germany for the failure of Daimler and several other German car makers to comply with the R-134a phase-out rule.  The JRC report is the latest nail in the coffin for Daimler’s foot-dragging tactics.  

The EU Parliament just adopted broader legislation that will phase down HFC uses across the board in coming years.  Here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with HFC reductions through the “Significant New Alternatives Program” established under the Clean Air Act.  As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is expected this summer to propose an accelerated transition schedule for the most damaging HFC uses, including R-134a in car air conditioners. 

Looks like the move away from super-potent climate-warming HFCs is finally gathering speed, adding momentum to efforts for a global HFC phase-down under the Montreal Protocol.