Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Back in the 1980s and early 90s, it was an inescapably big deal. Scientists realized that our use of a few specific types of compounds, called ozone-depleting substances, was effectively eating away at the thin layer of ozone in the Earth’s stratosphere that protects us from the intense ultraviolet light that can cause cancer and other health problems. The main culprits were potent greenhouse gases called chlorofluorocarbons or “CFCs.”
The good news: countries got together and drastically phased down CFCs through an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol. First agreed to in 1987 (though it wouldn’t enter into force until 1989), the protocol is credited as one of the most successful international environmental agreements in history.
The not-so-great news: CFCs were phased out for their ozone-depleting qualities and not their global warming potential. Industry’s response was to replace CFCs in household appliances like air conditioners with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are extremely potent greenhouse gases.
Since the protocol was first agreed to, the dangers HFCs present to the planet have become increasingly clear, which is why negotiators will soon head to Kigali, Rwanda, for the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol. Ahead of the event, there are a few important things you should know about HFCs and the Montreal Protocol.
1. HFCs are a big deal
Just how big of a problem are HFCs? Well, phasing down HFCs could avoid 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the end of this century.
On the face of it, that number might sound small, but remember even modest rises in average temperatures have profound effects on our climate. And also remember that the stated goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to hold it below 1.5 degrees. Which means preventing 0.5 degrees of warming is a big, big deal.
On the flip side, over the space of a few decades, the warming potential of HFCs could be some 3,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2). While human activity continues to emit far more CO2 than HFCs, they are not to be ignored.
2. We can replace them – if we can agree
Almost 80 percent of HFCs are used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems. The good news is that like CFCs there are many possible replacements, including substances with near-zero global warming potential like ammonia or hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs).
Phasing down HFCs also is largely cost-effective; however, especially at the outset, making some of the replacements can be expensive on a large scale. That’s where we run into some challenges.
Consider, for example, a nation like India. Already extremely hot (and getting hotter!) and with more than 1 billion inhabitants, India is seeing air conditioning ownership rise 15 percent per year. More air conditioning not only helps protect public health but also helps the nation boost daytime education and productivity to compete in the global marketplace.
Luckily, we have a legal agreement that can help.
3. The Montreal Protocol is the gold standard
When policy wonks talk about successful international environmental agreements, the Montreal Protocol consistently tops the list. The Economist even ranked it as by far the most effective policy (previous to the Paris Agreement) for slowing global warming, estimating the agreement has avoided 5.6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent.
There were several reasons for its success. It was flexible, science-based, and ambitious beyond what seemed necessary at the time. It also restricted trade of CFCs, HCFCs, and halons (another gas) to those nations that had joined the agreement. Conveniently, there were only a few major producers of these substances (like DuPont), so the global supply dwindled rapidly for those that didn’t join. For developing countries that did not yet have the financial or technical abilities to get on board, the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol was set up to help.
But HFCs aren’t covered under the Montreal Protocol. Not yet, anyway.
4. Amending the Protocol
Member countries have been working for the past few years to determine the kind of amendment that will work for them. Countries made specific proposals in late July in Vienna, which was the last meeting before the official Meeting of the Parties in October.
Some developed nations wanted to establish 2011–2013 as the baseline for HFC levels and reduce HFCs by 10 percent from those levels by 2019. However, a large group of developed and developing nations ditched that target to support a more lenient baseline of 2017–2019, with a consumption freeze in 2021. The longest compliance timeline comes from India’s proposal, which foresees a baseline of 2028–2030 with a consumption freeze in 2031.
We need to be fair to countries at every stage of development in this process. But we also need to be ambitious in the baselines and reduction targets we set. After all, the stakes are incredibly high. Without swift action, by 2020, HFC emissions are likely to soar 141 percent from 2005 levels. We need an ambitious plan for a phase-down, at least at the levels of the plan to freeze consumption in 2021.
The time for decisions comes when countries meet in Kigali, Rwanda from October 10–14. Then, we hope negotiators will adopt an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that takes the necessary steps to successfully phase down these potent, short-lived pollutants and continue to develop replacements that promote a cleaner, safer climate for all of us.
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