My mother was right: Too much TV is bad for us

[Another post by Ken Levenson.]

I’ve always known from a young age that watching TV wasn’t good for me – I can hear my mother now – but this is getting completely out of hand.

As reported by Ian Sample in The Guardian:

The rising demand for flat-screen televisions could have a greater impact on global warming than the world’s largest coal-fired power stations, a leading environmental scientist warned yesterday.

Nitrogen trifluoride or NF3 is a greenhouse gas, and it’s used in the manufacture of our flat screen televisions – 4,000 tons of it now annually and projected to double in the next year. Granted the amounts are relatively minuscule but NF3 is not to be trifled with:

In “NF3, the greenhouse gas missing from Kyoto” published in GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 35, Michael J. Prather and Juno Hsu make the case for its importance and argue for greater monitoring to determine what’s really happening.

How bad could this nitrogen trifluoride be? I mean methane is a whopping 21 times worse than CO2. Worse than methane?

…nitrogen trifluoride is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide…

Wow, that’s bad. But I bet it disintegrates in the atmosphere faster than methane then, right? It can’t possibly hang around for hundreds of years like CO2.

… [it] remains in the atmosphere for 550 years…

Gulp. Well then, since it’s so incredibly dangerous, it must be tightly regulated.

Unlike common greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs), emissions of the gas are not restricted by the Kyoto protocol or similar agreements.

I’ve bought my last TV.


18 Responses to My mother was right: Too much TV is bad for us

  1. Ronald says:

    How hard is it to capture in the manufactoring process?

    Supposedly it will be added to the list of all those greenhouse gases. It’s quite a list. Maybe an article on the progress of catching all those other gases might be helpful.

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    The perfluorides are incredibly stable because of the strong covalent bonds that fluorine makes with just about any non-metal. One of the bad things that the freon ban brought about was the replacement of chlorofluorcarbons with perfluorides for cleaning applications. 3M introduced a line of fluorinerts which were amazingly good, but absolutely stable in the atmosphere. They have since been replaced by less stable molecules/mixtures. NF3 is a bit of a dog bites man problem and find it hard to believe that it is co-measurate with CO2.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    Ken says, “I’ve bought my last TV.” Sounds good, but what about laptops, cell phones, etc. The AGU article says, “Now, it is marketed as a plasma etchant and equipment cleaning gas in the semiconductor industry. With the surge in demand for flat panel displays, the market for NF3 has exploded.”

  4. Greg N says:

    Some climate problems should be addressed by creating incentives to change the behaviour of consumers.

    Some should be addressed by changing the behaviours of manufacturers.

    Most are a mixture of both.

    This seems like a classic example from the “manufacturers” end of the spectrum. It’s a bit like changing refrigeration – hard to get consumers interested in behind-the-scenes technicalities. Hard enough to get consumers interested in the headline wattage and CO2 rating of a TV when shiny new TVs are so alluring!

    Pressure on manufacturers on this NF3 problem needs to come from governments or interest groups, because it will never come from consumers.

  5. Daniel Haran says:

    Is that all flat screens? LCDs or just plasma?

  6. john says:


    “Pressure on manufacterers”…? How about a ban, admisitered under TOSCA?

    This post makes one wonder whether there has been any attempt to systematically indentify and inventory all potential greenhouse gasses coming to market. How many other NF3s might there be?

    Eli: While you’re right that NF3 is not an equivalent problem to CO2, I’m not sure what your point is. Do we therefore ignore it? Downplay it?

  7. llewelly says:

    Because NF3 is used as cleaning agent in silicon dioxide etching, it is potentially used in almost all modern electronics – not just flat screens. (NF3 is also used in the manufacture of some kinds of (CVD-based) solar panels. Unfortunately I’ve no idea of relative amounts.

  8. Lamont says:

    The ratio of the radiative forcings of CO2 vs NF3 is much lower. CO2 is around 0.004 W/m2/ppb while NF3 is around 0.211 W/m2/ppb, which is only 50x the radiative forcing of CO2. So, the 50 tonnes of NF3 emitted this year is only equivalent to about 2,500 tonnes of CO2 emitted this year on the AGW budget for next year. The yearly emissions of the US and China are on the order of 6,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2 each.

    Yes, we should start up the regulatory machinery and scientific observations of NF3 and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand, but this is not going to be a significant global warming gas, and we don’t have to all stop buying electronics.

  9. Lamont says:

    And some more numbers:

    50 tonnes/year emissions * 60 (growth) * 17000 (CO2 equivalent over 100 year horizon) ~= 1% * US annual CO2 emissions.

    So, if it grows to 60x the current emissions then on a 100 year timeframe it will contribute 1% of the current US AGW forcing from CO2.

    Personally, If I ever get around to upgrading to an HD flat-screen from my behemoth of a rear projection sony, I won’t be worried at all about the GHG effects of the NF3 used to produce it.

  10. kenlevenson says:

    Now you’re getting tough! ;) I guess the low hanging fruit isn’t good enough anymore?!

    I’ll pledge this: to drastically reduce my computer replacement rate….. (we’re doomed?)

    It does seem – which I now realize I neglected to spell out – that it should be a pretty straightforward process to capture all the NF3 used in manufacturing. However for this to be happen we probably need very stringent international laws/regulations.

    Yet, for so many environmental impact reasons – best to use our existing computers until they’re dead, dead, dead….

  11. Earl Killian says:

    Ken, on a serious note, California is preparing to regulate SF6. I fired off a query to someone at CARB to ask if they are looking at NF3.

    The best answer for consumers is for the government to get companies to clean up their products. Consumer boycotts don’t work well, because often there is no alternative. A regulation makes every product an alternative. Look at what happened when the EU decided that it was no longer OK to put toxics in cosmetics. The companies removed them pronto, in the EU (US cosmetics are still toxic–essentially unregulated–some even have lead). The same thing with children’s toys and lead and phthalates. There are factories in China that make products for the EU, and ones in the next town that make them for the US. When EU inspectors reject a batch that come from the wrong factory, they just send them to the US. Given that alternatives are available, it is disgusting that we do nothing to have high standards. See Mark Schapiro’s Exposed.

    So my conclusion: a little regulation and you needed face such terrible withdrawal symptoms!

  12. kenlevenson says:

    Great – I assume you’ll post what you hear back?

    I’d only add that it’s important for government to regulate ALL (man-made) ghgs.

    To tie to Greg N.’s comment – even if regulations are minimal they could have big impact if placed on point of manufacture/ energy production, far upstream from consumers.

    To go on a bit: I think ALL ghgs need to be addressed/regulated because ( like my overly exhaustive Checklist Toward Zero Carbon. – shameless plug.) for society to get how fundamentally we need to change nothing should be given a pass – so that one may be submerged in the ramifications, to re-emerge with a new world view…That’s not meant to sound new-agey.

    One more thing, slightly off topic: As I propose that ALL ghgs need to be addressed, no matter the magnitude – while it may betray some willful ignorance – I don’t honestly understand why natural gas is “off the table”. It accounts for 25% of ghg emissions. Yes, it’s much more efficient than coal – but so what. If we can’t keep oil in the ground I think we should push for both a coal AND natural gas extraction moratorium. Sure it’s “unrealistic” – but let’s push for 11 and maybe we can get a 9?

    Interestingly, I’m hearing more and more that folks in NE (poor or on fixed-income) will switch from using heating oil to elec power (space heaters) – as it will be cheaper. I’ve started to think that it would be more “green” for me to change my stove to electric and my home heating from gas to electric – as we buy wind power generated electric via ConEd Solutions.
    I need to do some investigating on that….Perhaps a post of some sort for another day….

  13. Lamont says:

    I’d agree that we need to regulate all GHGs, but they should simply all be part of some kind of market-based trading system with an exchange rate between different gases like CO2 and NF3. If the cost of using NF3 and not recapturing the unused gas exceeds the cost of installing equipment to capture it, then it makes economic sense for businesses to capture it so they will.

  14. Earl Killian says:

    Ken said, “As I propose that ALL ghgs need to be addressed, no matter the magnitude

    That is the beauty of the way Congress wrote the Clean Air Act, as affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007. Any greenhouse pollutant can be regulated by the EPA if it poses a threat.

  15. Earl Killian says:

    Ken said, “’m hearing more and more that folks in NE (poor or on fixed-income) will switch from using heating oil to elec power (space heaters) – as it will be cheaper.

    That is hard to believe. The price of electricity in Massachusetts is 15.45 cents per kWh. That is 42.92 per giga joule. The price of crude oil is 140 per barrel. There are 6.119 GJ/barrel, so that is 23 per GJ. A decent furnace should turn heating oil into heat at fairly high efficiency. Heating oil is not as valuable as crude oil, so this would suggest that the only way this makes sense is if space heaters are being used very selectively instead of heating an entire house.

    It does indicate that an electric heat pump with a high COP might be closing in on the cost of heating with oil. I don’t know the price or GJ/gallon of heating oil, so I cannot do that calculation.

  16. kenlevenson says:


    One place I saw this (others too but can’t find at moment) is Environmental Building News – a great industry newsletter out of Brattleboro VT. Although they may be overstating the issue in some way I do think that many of the poor will heat just a single room and space heaters will accommodate that very easily – if also becoming a much greater fire hazard.

    Here are a couple of long quotes to get the idea of it:

    “Get Ready for Fuel Switching –
    In regions of the country that rely primarily on heating oil or propane for heat, including the Northeast and parts of the Upper Midwest, something pretty surprising has happened over the past six months. The cost of delivered heat from these fuels has risen above that of electricity—even when that electricity is used for electric-resistance heating in baseboard radiators. (For more on comparing fuel costs, see the BackPage Primer.) Electric-resistance heat can sometimes be cheaper than even natural gas, particularly for buildings with old furnaces and leaky, poorly insulated ducts. If a heat pump is used to double or triple the efficiency of electric heating, heating with electricity is almost always cheaper than using natural gas, oil, or propane (though purchasing and installing a heat pump is expensive)….”

    “To further complicate matters, the amount of usable heat we get from a fuel also depends both on the efficiency of a given heating device and on how efficiently that heat is distributed to the conditioned space. The efficiency of combustion appliances varies widely, from a low of about 40% for older woodstoves to over 95% for condensing gas furnaces. Electric-resistance baseboard heaters are 100% efficient, while heat pumps, which use electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of converting the electricity directly into heat, range in efficiency from 200% to over 300%. (These numbers don’t account for the “upsteam” energy costs of fuel production, nor do they begin to account for environmental costs—which are pretty significant with some forms of electricity generation.)…”

    “Will you save money by switching to another fuel source? If you heat with a standard gas furnace (ducting assumptions as above) and spend $1.65/therm for the natural gas, you’re spending about $33.05 per million Btu (MMBtu) for heat. That’s about the same cost as electric baseboard heat at 11¢/kWh ($32.23/MMBtu), so you’d save money by switching to electric baseboard heating as long as your electricity price is no higher than 11¢/kWh. (You could also improve the cost-effectiveness of gas heating by improving the efficiency of your furnace or heat-distribution system.) Similarly, you could switch from gas to wood pellets and still save money as long as the price of pellets is below $350 per ton (which is significantly higher than today’s going price). These changes don’t factor in the cost of the new heating system….”

  17. bob casey davis says:

    Does any one know where there is a comprehensive chart that shows the radiative forcing of greenhouse gases. Not “potency” over time but on a per molecule basis expressed in W/m2.

  18. Jay Alt says:

    Lamont, calculations seem ignore a main purpose of the Global Warming Potential evaluation – gas lifetimes.

    But NF3 will not be a problem, as Eli Rabett has pointed, since it is destroyed during use.