The new GHG on the block

12th May 2014

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Damien Smith argues that organisations should be reporting emissions of a new manmade greenhouse-gas that is 7,000 times more potent than CO2

The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that without action now to significantly curb greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, we are heading for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.

While carbon dioxide has been identified as the chief source of manmade climate change a new piece of scientific research claims to have discovered a new GHG 7,000 times more potent than CO2.

Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), according to researchers at the University of Toronto's department of chemistry, does not occur naturally but breaks all records for potential impacts on the climate. It has, apparently been in use by the electrical industry since the mid-20th century but has only now been disclosed as a GHG.

So what does this really mean? Is this another serious emission to worry about, to measure and manage? Haven’t we got more urgent topics and budgetary constraints acting upon our businesses?

Herein lies part of the problem; scepticism and a saturation of environmental issues tend to blunt the impact of new research to the extent that businesses habitually bury it, file it as a “potential problem” and leave it to gather dust in a drawer, or at least until regulators prompt statutory compliance.

It is difficult for organisations to allocate resources against future risk and to convince stakeholders of the value of pre-emptive action. It’s difficult at the best of times, let alone during a fragile economic recovery, but perhaps this is where we need to learn from our history.

If C02 has delivered any lessons it’s that we must trust science to give us the most accurate future lens and to act upon that knowledge. It may be argued that the systems (social, political and economic) were not in place or sophisticated enough to tackle C02 emissions early on, but we do have them now and there are two reasons why this could – and should – trigger early action.

First, organisations around the world are already working hard to reduce C02 and other GHG emissions. There is an increasing culture of measuring and reporting of environmental impacts to manage reputational risk and business continuity which would be seriously undermined by ignoring PFTBA.

Furthermore, adding PFTBA to the list of registered gases would not require a huge leap of understanding or adaptation although how electronic businesses actually measure it is another matter.

Second, existing reporting frameworks and tools can rapidly integrate voluntary reporting of new discoveries like this into current business systems, so procrastination, delays and ambiguity should be things of the past. To catalyse action actually requires surprisingly little modification to existing regulations and reporting mechanisms.

From a mitigation standpoint, the global warming potential of PFTBA is so acute that one would be forgiven for thinking that it might achieve notoriety of its own accord. After all, at 7,000 times the global warming potential of C0₂, PFTBA makes Methane seem like a breath of fresh air. It is undeniably potent. For that reason alone we should be tracking the occurrence of it without delay.

And if the risks alone are not enough, applying the precautionary principle to the electrical and electronics industry must be paramount they are to fend off accusations of mismanagement, lassitude and downright fecklessness.

If manufacturers allow emissions of PFTBA to continue and do not measure and report them how can the problem be assessed and alternative processes be created? Why wait until it is too late and too costly to change anything? If we are, as is suggested by Dr Shindell from the University of Toronto, to “make sure it doesn’t grow and reach its full potential,” we’d better start measuring it today.

Damien Smith is head of client services at Ecodesk (

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