Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on January 3, 2017.

Global Stewards

ELIMINATING A GREENHOUSE GAS THREAT MEANS DEALING WITH POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS ALTERNATIVES

In October, the gavel fell on a landmark climate change agreement, reached in Kigali, Rwanda, to phase out a specific family of manmade chemicals used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. While eliminating these chemicals, called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, makes sense for the environment, the alternatives that have been offered have the fire protection community on alert.

Unlike last year’s Paris Agreement and other efforts to cut back on carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels, the new Kigali Agreement is a legally binding accord focused on the reduction of a single family of chemicals. Government representatives from more than 170 nations worked together to forge the agreement, with the ultimate goal of reducing the warming of the planet by at least half a degree centigrade by the end of this century—the United Nations target to prevent dire environmental climate-change consequences.

HFCs are a prime target for those hoping to make a dent in the climate change problem because, while the overall volumes of HFCs are much less than other greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, they have dramatically greater heat-trapping characteristics. That’s become more of an issue as HFCs have become the heat transfer fluid of choice in air-conditioners and refrigerators over the last several decades, mainly because they have superior performance characteristics, including minimal fire danger. But that may not be the case as alternatives are sought.

This will be a significant challenge. Because of the widespread use of refrigeration systems and products, a change to HFC alternatives with flammable characteristics means we need to recalibrate our fire protection approaches for anticipated new hazards.

The fire protection community is no stranger to this sort of problem. The Kigali Agreement was the result of the 28th meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol, a landmark treaty first signed in 1987 by the United States and 23 other countries and since expanded to much of the world. At that first Montreal Protocol meeting, the nations agreed to unprecedented trade restrictions to phase out the production of the family of Halon chemicals, considered the primary culprits of the growing hole in the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer, a climatological disaster in the making.

As a result, the fire protection community engaged with environmentalists and world governments to coordinate and assist with the phase-out of Halon produced for fire protection. Automatic suppression systems using Halon 1301 for computer rooms and similar applications needed to find alternatives, and the search led to the development of NFPA 2001, Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems, and other efforts. At its headquarters, NFPA proudly displays a poster signed by the Montreal Protocol signatories in 1987.

Although the required action today with HFCs is different, the spirit of need and importance on the world scene is similar to the path we traveled in the 1980s with Halon 1301. Three decades ago the fire protection community responded nobly to the consequences of an important world treaty protecting tomorrow’s world, presently on loan to us from future generations. The environmental community is stepping forward through world governments to make our world a better and safer place. This rings true with NFPA and other stakeholders in the fire protection community, who likewise are dedicated to making our world a better and safer place. I’m confident we will rise again to meet the challenge.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.