Harnessing Human Ingenuity to Save Our Planet—and Ourselves

Gabe Plotkin

The world recently saw the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer unfold on the big screen. Christopher Nolan’s film made accessible to large swaths of people both Oppenheimer’s genius and the horrors that flowed from his achievements.  

Oppenheimer is not alone in the annals of history. Other scientists enlisted by governments or corporations to meet difficult challenges have seen their genius change the course of history, seemingly improving it, but ultimately causing great death and destruction.  

Midgley’s Legacy 

On this Mount Rushmore of infamy, front and center sits Thomas Midgley, Jr. Far less famous than Oppenheimer, Midgley made two incredible and ubiquitous inventions that brought comfort, safety, and ease to everyday life, with deadly long-term effects. In fact, there is perhaps no single person more responsible for climate change than Midgley. And as we recognize World Ozone Day and Climate Week, Midgley and his inventions – and his genius – are on my mind.  

Midgley was a renowned 20th century mechanical engineer and a brilliant inventor, widely praised and granted some of the most prestigious awards in his field. His first major invention was leaded gasoline. Early cars suffered from an annoying “engine knocking” that bothered motorists and threatened the success of the automobile industry. Midgley realized that adding lead to gasoline would eliminate this grating noise, and he and General Motors set out to make a fortune by doing just that. Never mind that lead was a known toxic element that poisons humans and damages their brains, and never mind that cars and trucks would eventually account for nearly 15% of the total carbon emissions leading us to the brink of catastrophic climate change.  

In the 1920s, Midgley was called into the booming business of refrigeration. He was tasked with finding alternatives to ammonia and other gases that had been used in refrigerators since the late 1800s. Most of them were flammable or explosive, and people commonly kept their refrigerators in their backyards as a safety measure. Midgley worked with Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont to search for a substitute that would allow for “air conditioning” to be safely used in homes and automobiles. The miracle compound he eventually discovered was dichlorodifluoromethane – the very first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – and most commonly known by its brand name “Freon.” It worked well, was neither toxic nor flammable, and it soon took off. By 1935, eight million refrigerators using Freon had been sold, and these man-made “cold boxes” were now a wondrous purveyor of the dream of an advancing lifestyle. 

Unfortunately, Freon and all other CFCs turned out to have devastating effects on our planet. So do their sister refrigerants, hydrochlorofluorocarbons. All of these compounds are potent greenhouse gases as much as 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And all of them devastate our ozone layer. By 1985, scientists discovered that the ozone layer over Antarctica had lost more than 30% of its thickness due to these refrigerants and the connection between ozone depletion, increased sun exposure and skin cancer was becoming increasingly clear. 

World Ozone Day commemorates the day in 1987 that countries all over the world signed the Montreal Protocol, coming together to start to phase out production of Midgley’s harmful gases. 

Writing the Next Chapter of the Story 

We can and should continue to remember inventors like Oppenheimer and Midgley and tell their stories as cautionary tales. We can and should use them to ask questions about technology and science and the responsibility that comes with new inventions. We can and should use them to develop moral guidelines for inventors moving forward.  

But is that all we can learn from them? Are these the only lessons to draw from these infamous inventors?   

On this World Ozone Day and during Climate Week, I propose that we think about Oppenheimer and Midgley and focus on what scientific genius can achieve if we set our minds to it. Not to absolve these historic figures of their sins. But rather, to save ourselves.  

Climate change is wreaking havoc on our world and causing unprecedented death and destruction. Refrigerant gases are responsible for about 10% of the historic greenhouse gas emissions that have caused global temperatures to rise. Moreover, the world is literally littered with appliances and equipment and cylinders and cans filled with ozone-depleting, climate-heating refrigerants. Indeed, while we started to phase out production of Midgley’s refrigerants in 1987, many countries still rely heavily on these gases and do not plan to completely phase them out until 2040. 

And we simply don’t have time to wait. 

Without refrigerant management and a global transition to environmentally-friendly technologies, the impact from the eventual release of these gases (and other refrigerants) is estimated to equal more than 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050. 

And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. We are experiencing the hottest temperatures in history, and access to air-conditioning (the source of warming) will be needed to save lives—at least in the short term. 

Human ingenuity is unbounded. Oppenheimer invented and tested the atomic bomb in less than four years. The U.S. used tremendous resources and scientific brilliance to see the Manhattan Project to a rapid conclusion with huge impact on the entire world. In less than a decade, Midgley helped invent both leaded gas and Freon. General Motors found ways to finance and profit from both inventions in record time and with tremendous success. 

Why don’t we act at these levels of ingenuity and intention to mitigate climate change and save our planet?  

The answer is that we can and we should. We are smart enough and creative enough. We have both the intelligence and the ingenuity to invent new ways of doing things that can change the world quickly. And if we have the will, we can unlock the inventions that will become the script for a movie about the next brilliant scientist or global, collaborative effort that changes the world—one we hope our future generations will be proud to reflect on. 


Emission reductions are considered permanent if they are not reversible. In some projects, such as forestry or soil preservation, carbon offset credits are issued based upon the volume of CO2 that will be sequestered over future decades—but human actions and natural processes such as forest fires, disease, and soil tillage can disrupt those projects. When that happens, the emission reductions claimed by the project are reversed.

The destruction of halocarbon does not carry this risk. All destruction activities in Tradewater’s projects are conducted pursuant to the Montreal Protocol , which requires “a destruction process” that “results in the permanent transformation, or decomposition of all or a significant portion of such substances.” Specifically, the destruction facilities Tradewater uses must meet or exceed the recommendations of the UN Technology & Economic Assessment Panel , which approves certain technologies to destroy halocarbons, including the requirement that the technology achieve a 99.99% or higher “destruction and removal efficiency.” Simply put, this means that Tradewater’s technologies ensure that over 99.99% of the chemicals are permanently destroyed. During the destruction process, a continuous emission monitoring system is used to ensure full destruction of the ODS collected.


Some carbon offset projects necessarily rely on estimations or assumptions when calculating the emission reductions from project activities. Forestry projects, where developers make assumptions about the carbon that will be sequestered over future decades if trees are conserved, are a perfect example. Such projects sometimes result in an overestimation of the environmental benefit of the project.

Tradewater’s halocarbon projects avoid the issue of overestimation by consistently conducting extremely precise testing and measurement of the amount of refrigerant destroyed in each project.

  • Every container of ODS that Tradewater destroys is weighed by a third-party using regularly calibrated scales. The ODS is then sampled by a third-party and analyzed by an accredited refrigerant laboratory to determine its species and purity. These two steps combine to ensure that credits are issued only for the precise volume and type of refrigerant destroyed.
  • The destruction facilities that Tradewater uses continuously monitor the incineration process during destruction events to ensure that over 99.99% of the ODS is destroyed. This monitoring is mandated by regulatory protocols and is part of the verification process to which projects are subjected.
  • Tradewater accounts for the project emissions created during the collection, transport, and destruction of ODS, and the number of offsets issued is reduced by a corresponding amount. The protocols that we use also build in other reductions to account for substitute chemicals that will be used to replace the destroyed refrigerants. Tradewater publishes this information in the documentation for all its ODS destruction projects. These documents outline how the material was obtained, the project emissions calculations, the test results, and the amount and type of ODS chemicals destroyed, among other information.
  • Additionality

    It is a basic requirement of all carbon offset projects that the underlying project activities are additional. “Additional” means that the projects would not happen in the absence of a carbon market. Tradewater’s halocarbon projects simply would not happen – and the gases would be left to escape into the atmosphere – without the sale of the resulting carbon offset credits. This is because there is no mandate to collect and destroy these gases. It is still permissible to buy, sell, and use halocarbons that were produced before the ban. There are other reasons halocarbon destruction projects are additional:

    • There are no incentives or financial mechanisms to encourage halocarbon destruction. According to the International Energy Agency and United Nations Environment Program, “there is rarely funding nor incentive” to recover and destroy ozone depleting substances in storage tanks and discarded equipment. And collecting, transporting, and destroying halocarbons is time-intensive and expensive. The burden to collect and destroy these gases therefore remains prohibitive outside of carbon offset markets—meaning that if organizations like Tradewater do not do this work, nobody else will.
    • Countries are not focused on the need to collect and destroy halocarbons. The Montreal Protocol has been celebrated as a success because of its production ban. This success, however, ignores the legacy gases produced before the ban and is a blind spot for government regulators. In the U.S., for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a Vintaging Model in the 1990s to estimate the quantify of ozone depleting substances left in circulation. Based on the inputs and assumptions put into the model, the EPA predicted that no CFCs would be available for recovery beyond 2020 in the United States. But this prediction did not prove accurate. Tradewater has collected and destroyed more than 1.5 million pounds of CFCs globally in recent years and continues to identify thousands of pounds per week.
    • International carbon accounting standards do not require corporations to measure or track emissions tied to halocarbons, and refrigerants are specifically excluded from Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) commitments. These commitments derive from emissions reporting under the GHG Protocol, which requires companies to report on emissions only from new generation refrigerants, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), but does not establish any obligation to report inventories or emissions of refrigerants still in use, such as CFCs and HCFCs. All these factors combine to make Tradewater’s carbon offset projects highly additional. As Giving Green, an initiative of IDinsight, concluded: “Tradewater would not exist without the offset market, so this element of additionality is clearly achieved.” The case for additionality is not so clear for some other project types, such as forestry and landfill gas carbon projects. For example, some forests are already being conserved for their beauty, or for use as parks, and generate carbon offset credits only because those conservation efforts do not yet have full formal protection in place to avoid deforestation in the future. Similarly, methane from landfills can be used to make electricity or captured as compressed natural gas, thereby creating additional revenue streams to support the activities, beyond the sale of carbon credits.