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By 2011, all new cars sold in Europe will use a new, more environmentally-friendly type of air conditioning refrigerant; photo by Chris Chase

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By Jim Kerr

Back in the early 90s, the auto industry began a switch from using R12 refrigerant to R134a refrigerant for vehicle air conditioning systems. This was done for environmental reasons, as R12 was found to cause depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer if it was released into the atmosphere. During that period, several different refrigerants were evaluated before R134a finally won out.

There was a cost to drivers: R134a refrigerant prices were and still are higher, although the cost of R12 did skyrocket as production of it ceased and supplies became limited. Finally, the use of R12 for charging air conditioning systems was banned and drivers had to convert to R134a if they wished to have air conditioning in their vehicles. Why this history lesson? Because history is about to repeat itself.

Beginning in 2011, according to European Union regulations, new vehicles in Europe will have to use an air conditioning refrigerant that has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of less than 150. GWP is an index comparing the climate impact of an emission of a greenhouse gas relative to that of emitting the same mass of carbon dioxide (CO2). By 2017, all vehicles will have to use a refrigerant with a GWP of less than 150. In comparison, the current refrigerant, R134a, has a GWP of 1430, so it can no longer be used.

While the regulations pertain to Europe, automobiles are manufactured with a global perspective. Some vehicles manufactured in Canada are sold around the world and the costs of making different spec vehicles for different parts of the world are very expensive. This would add to the cost of vehicles for all buyers. Instead, you can expect manufacturers to adopt a common refrigerant that will meet the European standards and incorporate it into vehicles built and sold in countries around the world.

There will be additional costs to incorporating the new refrigerant because they will likely need additional components on our vehicles. The exact costs are not known, because while there are a few refrigerants in the evaluation stage, just as there was in the early 1990’s, there isn’t a winner yet, and until a refrigerant is chosen, the support components can’t be determined.

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