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Organizers of the Winter Games in South Korea set a goal of becoming the first zero-emissions event in Olympics history. But the refrigerants being used in the Pyeongchang ice arenas are some of the most potent climate-warming chemicals on the market.
The refrigerant used in all of the ice skating and hockey venues in Pyeongchang is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant called R404A, according to an Olympic statement provided to Bloomberg Environment,
Manufactured by Chemours and Honeywell, R404A has a global warming potential (GWP) of 3,922—meaning it is 3,922 times more potent in warming the climate than carbon dioxide, according to the Refrigeration Roadmap, a guide to technologies to help retailers save on carbon emissions.
Of the indoor ice sports venues in Pyeongchang, four have been constructed since 2011, when South Korea was awarded the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. But while they’re using R404A, arenas in some parts of the world are moving away from the substance.
“You probably wouldn’t see those refrigerants being used any more in rinks in the U.S. or Canada, especially the newer facilities,” said Douglas Reindl, director of the Industrial Refrigeration Consortium at the University of Wisconsin.
Honeywell recently said it plans to stop selling R404A in Europe this year, citing the EU’s pending phaseout of fluorinated gases. Likewise, the U.S. has set a timeline to phase out HFCs and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) refrigerants by 2020.
“Some rinks still use these old fluorinated-chemical refrigerants, but the costs for those types of chemicals are going up fast,” said Reindl. “Their decision may have been based on familiarity, or choosing the equipment that was most readily available before the start of the games.”
Olympic organizers have said they will attempt to minimize the overall emissions impact of the games through the purchase of carbon offsets.
While some environmentalists back the statement of support, others point out that the follow-through is sometimes lacking.
“Some sort of language about sustainability is always included in the Olympic Games when they come around,” said Mark Floegel, research director with Greenpeace USA. “There’s often talk about things like offsets, but offsets are essentially just promissory notes, useful for the press package, but not much else.”
Often sold under the generic brand, Freon, HFCs and HCFCs were introduced in the 1990s as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) based refrigerants, which were phased out in large part by 1996 under an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, because they were eroding the ozone layer.
Commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators, HFCs and HCFCs are far less damaging to the ozone layer, but collectively they have become a significant driver of climate change. Some are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide on a pound-per-pound basis, making them a target for international efforts to combat climate change.
“It’s a bit unfortunate because it was basically ‘mission accomplished’ on the ozone issue—but that quickly gave way to new concerns over greenhouse gases,” said Reindl.
After seven years of negotiations, the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol, which would phase out HFC emissions, was passed in 2016.
The U.S. has not yet ratified the amendment, nor has the Trump administration said whether it plans to do so. If the U.S. does not ratify, it could potentially hinder U.S. companies’ ability to sell coolants to other countries that have ratified the agreement.
In the U.S. and Canada, 20 National Hockey League arenas use HFCs or HCFCs, compared to 11 using natural refrigerants such as ammonia. The newest NHL arenas—in Las Vegas, Detroit and Edmonton—all have ammonia-based ice plants.
“With the looming 2020 phaseout, NHL arenas will evaluate the options to switch out their HCFC- or HFC-based systems,” said Omar Mitchell, vice president of corporate social responsibility for the NHL.
Mitchell told Bloomberg Environment that both kinds of hydrogenated refrigerants are highly efficient for ice plant operations, but also carry a hefty global warming potential of 1,800 or higher.
“That’s compared to natural refrigerants like ammonia, which has a GWP of zero, or carbon dioxide, which has a GWP of one,” said Mitchell.
While there are only 31 NHL arenas, many community rinks are spread across North America. Mitchell acknowledged swapping out, or modifying, refrigeration chillers could be cost-prohibitive for some rink operators.
“The NHL considers indoor ice arenas and community rinks the grassroots entry points to our game,” he said.
“NHL is currently exploring ‘drop-in’ refrigerants that do not require massive financial resources to upgrade ice plants and have significantly lower GWP than HCFC refrigerants. This will hopefully address the environmental sustainability impacts of our sport,” he said.
The quest to bring sustainability to winter sports isn’t just an issue for ice rinks. Other sports, such as bobsledding, skeleton, and luge also come with huge investments in infrastructure and cost.
“It’s tremendously expensive—around $100 million to build, and then there’s very low utilization after the games are over,” said Jan-Anders Mansson, a chemical engineer at Purdue University.
To cut down the costs, Mansson developed what he calls “plastic ice,” made from polyethylene, the same material used in plastic bags. Manson told Bloomberg Environment that when lubricated with a bit of water, polyethylene performs almost identically to ice.
“It’s also pretty durable, it can handle runners running over it with minimal wear and tear.” He said. “In fact, the material actually has a tendency to heal itself.”
Mansson estimates a plastic track could reduce total environmental impact by 60 to 70 percent. In addition to completely eliminating all of the costs for refrigeration, he said a plastic bobsled track could be easily be disassembled, and moved to other areas, opening up the sport to more would-be racers.
Mannson said initial discussions with the International Olympic Committee have been “extremely positive,” and the next step will be to create a demo track that can be shown to coaches and athletes.
“Bobsled has so much attractiveness, it’s got speed, excitement, all the elements that we like to have in sports, but if you can’t reach young people, it won’t be around for long,” he said.
A recent analysis by scientists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found that of 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics in the past, nearly half won’t be reliably cold enough to host them again by 2050 because of climate change.
In order to hedge against that impending reality, the IOC has created Agenda 2020, a wide-ranging blueprint for future Olympics. Among other things, it changes the host city selection process calling for fewer billion-dollar projects and incorporating sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games.
Before withdrawing its application over cost concerns, Stockholm was considered a front-runner to host the 2022 Winter Games.
“At the time we were talking about hosting the bobsled events in Latvia, or Norway, someplace with an existing track,” said Stefan Lindberg, the former head of the Swedish Olympic Committee.
There are currently 16 Olympic caliber bobsled tracks in the world, and Lindberg doesn’t think future Olympic cities will be willing to take on the costs to build a new one.
“That’s where the idea of a portable track seems really exciting,” said Lindberg. “It would greatly cut down on the financial and environmental costs of hosting the Winter Games.”
The 2022 Winter Games will be held in Beijing. It’s not yet clear what refrigerants will used in the ice rinks, or whether synthetic ice is under consideration.
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