What the Heck Is HFC-23?

Last night Kevin Drum noticed a disturbing article about a UN system of emissions trading where developing countries would get compensated for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Each gas was weighted based on its greenhouse gas potency, which makes sense because some chemicals are far more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Methane is more than 20 times more potent, and some obscure chemical called HFC-23 is more than 11,000 times more potent.

But introduce some amoral, parasitic coolant manufacturers, and you can imagine what happened next:

They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas. That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

That incentive has driven plants in the developing world not only to increase production of the coolant gas but also to keep it high — a huge problem because the coolant itself contributes to global warming and depletes the ozone layer. That coolant gas is being phased out under a global treaty, but the effort has been a struggle.

As Kevin says, the best part is surely how this has been going on for five years, kept alive by these manufacturers blackmailing the planet by threatening to just dump their undestroyed gas into the atmosphere.

This got me wondering, though, what exactly is this HFC-23? Here’s a picture:

CF3H, or trifluoromethane. Image via

You can think of it as methane (CH4, a carbon atom attached to four hydrogens) with three of those hydrogens replaced with fluorine (or, the fluorine equivalent of chloroform). According to the 2007 IPCC report, this stuff is basically global warming Armageddon waiting to happen. They estimate its potency higher, at 14,800 carbon dioxide equivalents over 100 years. Unlike methane, which only lasts about a dozen years in the atmosphere, HFC-23 lasts for 270 years (a carbon-fluorine bond is really hard to break).

So, now we know. In case you’d like to scare yourself silly, check out Table 2.14 of the IPCC report, which has a listing of all the gases with which we could fry ourselves. Our friend above isn’t even the worst one—that honor goes to sulfur hexafluoride, which clocks in at 22,800 CO2 equivalents over 100 years, and lasts for 3,200 years. And yes, we’ve been steadily increasing concentrations of that one too.

Follow Ryan on Twitter and his website; follow the magazine @washmonthly.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.