Your Flat Screen Has (Greenhouse) Gas

Emily Udell

This flat-screen TV offers a view of the wilderness that the production of a chemical in its screen helps destroy.

Vegging out in front of your flat-panel TV may pose more danger than turning your brain to mush. 

A chemical used in the manufacturing of flat-screen televisions could rival some of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases in its harmful effects on the environment, according to a June study published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The production of nitrogen triflouride, or NF3 – used to produce flat-panel display screens – has increased over the past decade to meet the rising demand for consumer electronics like liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs. Global production of NF3 now outstrips the 2005 emissions of synthetically produced greenhouse gases, such as perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), the report found. 

NF3 has a potential greenhouse impact larger than that of the industrialized nations’ emissions of PFCs or SF6, or even that of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants,” write Michael Prather and Juno Hsu, the study’s authors.

They call NF3 the missing greenhouse gas” because it’s not covered under the Kyoto Protocol – the international agreement established to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the treaty in 1997, NF3 was produced only in small quantities, primarily for rocket fuel and lasers. 

The Kyoto Protocol – which the United States has not ratified – was based on data from 1995, and covers carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the three major greenhouse gases attributed to human activities. But NF3’s impact on global warming was not considered until the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the study says. 

Prather and Hsu estimate that some 4,000 tons of NF3 will be produced this year and that the amount could double by 2010 if companies like DuPont and Mitsui Chemicals expand production. 

In November, industrial chemical manufacturer Air Products, the largest NF3 producer, announced that it would ramp up its production in the United States and Asia. 

Global shipments of LCD TVs are expected to nearly double, from about 100 million units in 2008 to almost 194 million units in 2012, according to market research firm iSuppli, which attributes that growth to falling prices and an increased demand for the high-definition display format. 

Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace International, says he’s concerned that the switch from analog to digital television next February will catalyze an uptick in electronic waste as people discard their old TVs and simultaneously create a purchasing bubble for flat-panel TVs.

Now that we’re aware of global warming, we should not do anything to exacerbate it,” Davies says. For any of these manufacturing processes, there is also a safer alternative and that includes climate safety.”

At a recent G-8 summit in Japan, President Bush and other leaders pledged to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But many environmental advocates – groups such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club – say the pledge is vague and doesn’t go far enough because no targets were set for the next decade. And a lot can happen in 10 years. 

Despite the increased production of NF3 over the past decade, documentation of its abundance in the atmosphere does not exist. Prather and Hsu’s study warns that recording the impact is essential and that the list of greenhouse gases covered by Kyoto must be expanded during the second commitment period for the agreement, which is slated to begin in 2012

NF3 triggers the radar that there may be other surprises coming in global warming,” says Davies. We must be vigilant about new industrial gases that contribute.”

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Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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