The global climate agreement reached last year in Paris got a tremendous amount of coverage, as it well deserved. It was certainly a historic moment and keeps alive the possibility that we can continue to reduce emissions and stave off the worst of what this climate crisis could potentially bring.
Another agreement, signed last week, received far less attention, though it could by some estimates have an impact even greater than COP21 and the resulting Paris agreement.
Last week in Kigali, Rwanda, more than 170 countries pledged to cut back their use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. These gases, while far less widely emitted than carbon dioxide, have an impact that is up to 1,000 times greater on a pound-for-pound basis.
Given that the Earth is warming and more people are rising out of poverty, it is expected that the number of air conditioners and refrigerators will continue to grow rapidly — making the issue all the more urgent.
The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development estimates that eliminating these gases as quickly as possible can help to limit warming by as much as half a degree Celsius. This was confirmed by a study published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
These gases are used in a fairly limited way — as refrigerants for air conditioners and refrigerators — and are produced in a relatively small number of locations (unlike CO2 which comes out of every tailpipe, chimney, campfire, etc.). So, it should be far easier to cut back. That is, of course, provided there is an agreement to do so, which is now on the books.
Ironically, commitments on HFCs came about as the result of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a highly successful effort to cut back on the previous generation of refrigerants, known as CFCs, due to their damaging impact on the ozone layer. HFCs were chosen because they do not destroy ozone. However, at that time climate change was not yet on the public radar, so the impact of HFCs on global warming was not considered.
Unlike the Paris agreement on CO2 — which has many more complex and far-reaching consequences that drive deep into the roots of our economy, directly impacting critical choices over how we produce electricity and what we use to propel our cars — this agreement merely requires upgrading this rather sizable class of equipment with a safe and suitable replacement for HFCs.
Alternatives already exist. The EPA already approved three: propane, isobutane and a chemical known as R-441A (a hydrocarbon blend also known as HCR188C) for use as refrigerants. Now all that remains are for manufacturers to begin selling equipment that utilizes these alternatives (some models are already on the market) and wait for the inventory to turn over.
That, of course, is easier said than done — especially in poor countries, where families may have spent a large portion of their total worth on an air conditioner they aren’t in any hurry to replace. Then there are the smaller manufacturers that may find the cost of retooling a major burden.
That’s why the agreement ended up with a three-tiered structure, in an effort to make it fair to all parties. The Kigali accord is technically an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which means that, unlike the Paris agreement, it maintains the legal force of a treaty.
As part of the agreement, the U.S. and other developed countries in the EU will commit to freezing production of HFCs by 2018, and then manage emissions down to 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2036. The other participants will be given even more time. Most of the rest of the world, including China, Africa and Brazil, will have until 2024 to freeze HFC use, reducing it to 20 percent of 2021 levels by 2045.
Finally, a few of the world’s hottest countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, will have until 2028 to discontinue production, which should get them down to 15 percent of 2025 levels by 2047.
One can imagine, as each of these deadlines is reached, a good number of now-obsolete air conditioners being shipped off to other countries that have another six to 10 years to comply.
But the good news is that the world reached an agreement. Of course, scientists wanted it to be stronger. But that should not overshadow the significance of the agreement. Sierra Club president Michael Brune summed it up well:
“This landmark accomplishment to limit potent greenhouse gases is one of the most significant steps the international community has taken to curb the climate crisis. By working together, more than 150 countries have committed to action that can change the trajectory of warming on our planet by avoiding a half degree Celsius in temperature increases.”
Image credit: Jan Tik: Flickr Creative Commons