The world just took another huge step forward on fighting climate change
By Chris Mooney
Oct 15 2016
Last week, we learned that the Paris climate agreement will go into effect in November after the European Union formally joined the accord, tipping it past the threshold needed to become a reality.
Now this week brings another major foray in international climate diplomacy, as more than 140 countries adopted an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are super-polluting, powerful greenhouse gases.
“The prospects for the future of our planet are bright,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement about the deal. McCarthy led a U.S. delegation to Kigali, Rwanda, where the deal was struck early Saturday after negotiations that ran through the night.
HFCs don’t get much attention. But here’s why they matter: When the original Montreal Protocol phased out chlorofluorocarbons, which were destroying the planet’s ozone layer, manufacturers had to find a replacement chemical to use as refrigerants and in other industrial applications.
Along came HFCs, which were much better for the ozone layer but, like CFCs, also happen to be a powerful global warming agent. The chemicals are vastly more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100 year time frame when it comes to warming the atmosphere. So one huge environmental crisis was, in effect, replaced by another problem lingering on the horizon.
Scientists fear that a forecast explosion in air conditioning all around the world, especially in developing economies like India, could result in so much HFC leakage that it could warm the global temperature by an additional half a degree Celsius by the end of the century. Unless, that is, HFCs are curbed.
Under the “Kigali Amendment” approved early Saturday, the planned reduction of HFCs would have an impact similar to the removal of 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 35 years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was also on hand for the negotiations said in a speech Friday that “it is not often you get a chance to have a .5-degree centigrade reduction by taking one single step together as countries — each doing different things perhaps at different times, but getting the job done.”
Paul Bledsoe, who worked on climate issues under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and was in Kigali for the negotiations, said the agreement could help “lessen climate change impacts like sea-level rise, wildfires, and extreme storms and floods.” In addition, “it should jump-start other efforts to get to prevent runaway climate change,” he said.
The way the new amendment works is this: Developed and developing countries will have different “freeze dates,” or years when they must peak their HFC emissions and then begin to bring them down steadily over time. And in many cases, those freeze dates will be quite soon. For developed nations like the United States, the date will be 2019. For the majority of developing nations, it will be 2024, except for a few nations, including India and Pakistan, which will take a little longer, until 2028.