Countries Agree to Cut Harmful Refrigerants: What You Need to Know

Over the weekend, nearly 200 nations agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a super greenhouse gas used in air conditioners and refrigerators

Air Conditioners
Wikimedia Commons

Over the last twenty-five years, climate change treaties have stacked up like a deck of cards; there’s the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accords, the Cancun Agreement, Doha Amendment and most recently the Paris Agreement. Despite the time spent negotiating them, those plans have achieved varying degrees of success. Some nations refused to ratify the agreements and others have since missed the voluntary targets, receiving little to no consequences. But a new agreement was just ratified by nearly 200 countries after intense negotiations at the Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali, Rwanda.

The latest agreement is binding and has a set of timelines and penalties for nations that do not meet their targets. “It is likely the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet and limit the warming for generations to come,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, reports Coral Davenport at The New York Times.

The focus of the agreement is the phase out of hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are a class of chemical known as a super greenhouse gas—thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in insulating the planet. But the plan is much more complex than an outright ban. Here are five things to know:

The ozone connection

Back in the late 1980s, the Montreal Protocol was considered one of the first great environmental accords. Most nations agreed to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, a class of chemicals used as propellants and refrigerants that were eating away at the ozone layer over Antarctica. The protocol seems to be working, and just this past summer a new study indicated that the hole in the ozone is not as wide or deep as it once was.

The problem is, HFCs replaced these CFCs, which, while not damaging to the ozone layer, are powerful greenhouse gases in their own right. Replacements for HFCs include several options including chemicals based on carbon dioxide, Ammonia, and a class of chemicals called hydrofluoroolefins or HFOs.

The big dip

According to a White House press release, the Kigali deal will reduce 80 percent of HFCs over the next 30 years. That’s the equivalent of preventing 80 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. In climate terms, phasing out HFCs could help the planet avoid a 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature rise, a big step toward helping limit global temperature changes by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the current century—the goal set by the Paris Climate agreement.

The Institute for Government and Sustainable Development calls the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol “the largest temperature reduction ever achieved by a single agreement.”

Stepwise phase out

Because switching from HFCs could be economically difficult for many developing countries, the Amendment uses a stepped approach to the phase out. According to the White House, wealthier nations will be required to start winding down chemical production starting in 2019—beginning with a 10 percent phase out the first year, reaching 85 percent of 2011-2013 production levels by 2036. For developing regions, including nations in Africa, Latin America and China, the phase out begins in 2024, reaching 80 percent of 2020-2022 levels in the year 2045.

But there is an incentive for developing nations to speed up this timeline. A new public-private partnership called the High Ambition Climate Fund has gathered $80 million in funding to help those nations reach their HFC goals on schedule or even sooner.

Industry on board

From the outside, the agreement may look like an attack on the chemical companies that produce HFCs. But, as Davenport reports, the deal began as a negotiation between the chemical industry and the governments of the U.S. and China—the world’s largest manufacturer of the chemicals. In 2013, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, agreed to begin work on phasing out HFCs. The chemical industry in both nations started investigating HFC replacements and scaling up production of these alternative compounds.

“Our industry is hard at work doing the research on the HFC alternatives,” Stephen Yurek of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute tells Davenport. “Getting that right is certainly as important as reaching agreement.”

The climate trifecta

The Kigali Amendment is seen as one of several recent steps forward in international climate agreements. The first is the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, a United Nations platform to end world poverty while improving lives through sustainable consumption and production practices. The framework, adopted in September 2015, has already received $100 billion in funding from donor nations and philanthropists.

The other triumph is the Paris Climate Agreement, approved in December 2015 by 195 nations. The agreement, which took nine years to negotiate, is different from previous deals since it does not exempt developing nations. It also includes legally binding provisions that certain nations stick to the agreement. A public monitoring schemed nicknamed “name and shame” is also designed to put peer pressure on nations to live up to their commitments.

So far, 81 nations out of 197 that were party to the agreement have ratified it, enough to put it into effect. In September, China also ratified the deal, which is seen as a big step toward curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S., which accounts for about 16 percent of emissions, also ratified the deal.

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