Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rwanda HFC/greenhouse gas deal a success worth celebrating

An important climate change deal recently signed at a UN conference in Rwanda has received relatively little media attention. Which is a shame, because it is potentially quite significant, and a good example of a little victory in a field where victories are hard to come by.
The 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer took place in Kigali, Rwanda on 10–14 October 2016. While billed as an ozone meeting and not a climate change meeting, it will nevertheless have some important ramifications in the world's struggle to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to keep global warming within bounds.
During the meeting, 197 nations agreed to drastically reduce their use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs were developed in the 1990s, after the 1989 Montreal Protocol in which it was agreed to phase out and replace the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were widely in fridges and air conditioners. CFCs were found to be eating large holes in the earth's ozone layer, and the Montreal Protocol came to be seen as one of the world's great environmental success stories.
However, although HFCs effectively solved the ozone problem, it turned out that they were also a potent greenhouse gas, up to 10,000 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere as they leak out into the air. Because HFCs are now so widely used in refrigeration, and as newly industrializing countries like India and China expand their use of air conditioning, they represent a significant source of greenhouse gases worldwide (an estimated 8% of total global warming impact).
Now, HFCs can be reduced by making air conditioners and refrigerators more efficient, and by sealing up leak (so that HFCs do not seep into the atmosphere). But an alternative to HFCs is also now available, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), which are much more benign chemicals and trap much less heat in the atmosphere over their lifetimes.
Unfortunately, HFOs are significantly more expensive than HFCs or CFCs, and large but relatively poor developing countries like India and Brazil just cannot afford the switch without help. Under the Rwanda deal, therefore, the wealthier countries of North America and Europe will make the transition away from HFCs first, while developing countries will be allowed more time (and will hopefully benefit from reduced prices and increased efficiencies as new products and processes are developed). The wealthier countries will also help finance the transition of the less wealthy directly.
Because the agreement is an amendment under the existing Montreal Protocol, there are already reporting and enforcement mechanisms in place, and there are penalties for any countries that do not meet their commitments. The amendment is expected to reduce HFC use by up to 85% by 2047.
So, say it loud! Celebrate the successes! God knows, we see so few.

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