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What's At Risk This Friday? The UN is Debating HFCs TODAY

What's At Risk This Friday? The UN is Debating HFCs TODAY

Vincent Biruta, Minister of Natural Resources, Rwanda, Erik Solheim, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director,  Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, and Tina Birmpili, Executive Secretary, Ozone Secretariat, stand for the national anthem of Rwanda.  Photo courtesy of IISD

Vincent Biruta, Minister of Natural Resources, Rwanda, Erik Solheim, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, 
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, and Tina Birmpili, Executive Secretary, Ozone Secretariat, stand for the national anthem of Rwanda. 

Photo courtesy of IISD

Today marks the last day of the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Held in Rwanda, dozens of nations came together for five days of negotiations to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (“HFCs”) through policy. 

Director of Climate Action Network International Wael Hmaidan stated it perfectly: “In the Paris Agreement, national leaders promised to try their hardest to limit global warming to 1.5°C. However, those promises will ring hollow if we don’t get an early date for the global phase-down of HFCs.”

Coolants, such as refrigerators, air conditioning, and foam insulation, emit chemicals through the production, consumption, and leakage of faulty equipment. The compounds used in coolants include hydrofluorocarbons (“HFCs”), chlorofluorocarbon (“CFCs”), and halons. They harm our environment, through the depletion of our ozone and the emission of greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) in our atmosphere.

The ozone, combined with molecular oxygen (“O2”), protect large amounts of radiation from reaching the ground. These compounds absorb rays, such as intense ultraviolet (“UV”) waves, from scorching the earth’s surface—from making life on earth virtually impossible. For decades, scientists have been analyzing how certain emissions and bi-products affect the biosphere. In 1974, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland published an article on the eminent threat CFCs have on the ozone. What is now known as Nobel Prize winning work, these scientists determined that if CFCs continued passing through our atmosphere at an unaltered rate, the ozone would deplete at unprecedented rates. By 1985, these predictions became reality. The ozone over Antarctica had opened, creating a “hole,” largely due to industrially-manufactured gases that chemically react with the biosphere.

Picture 1: Thickness of the ozone layer over Halley Bay, Antarctica. Note the severe depletion since the end of the 1970s.

Once the public became aware of the effect of ozone-depleting gases, the United Nations came together to work on the Montreal Protocol. This contract called for the complete ban of a large number of harmful compounds. Signed by 46 countries, the protocol came into effect in 1989, whereby the signatories agreed to end both production and consumption of mainly CFCs, halons, and hydrochloroflurocarbons (“HCFCs”).

Picture 2: Present changes in stratospheric chlorine content up to present with three different future scenarios: a) No restrictions on release; b) Limits according to the original Montreal Protocol of 1987; c) New release limitations internationally agreed in 1989. Chlorine content measures the magnitude of ozone depletion.

Picture 2: Present changes in stratospheric chlorine content up to present with three different future scenarios: a) No restrictions on release; b) Limits according to the original Montreal Protocol of 1987; c) New release limitations internationally agreed in 1989. Chlorine content measures the magnitude of ozone depletion.

In short, the Montreal Protocol is one of the all-time greatest environmental success stories of our time—culminating in a large reversal of the hole in our stratospheric ozone, set to potentially close completely by the end of the century. 

HFCs are unregulated through the Paris Agreement or Montreal Protocol of 1989 - although they are 10,000x more effective in trapping greenhouse gases in the ozone than CO2.

Fast-forward to today. After phasing out some compounds, a new one entered the coolant industry: hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs were considered a worthy substitute to ozone-depleting elements because, without chlorine, their potential damage to the atmosphere is negligibly small. Thus, HFCs didn't fall under regulatory scrutiny in the 1989 Montreal Protocol.

According to a new NASA study, a class of widely used chemical coolants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), found in refrigerators and in home and automobile air conditioners, contributes to ozone depletion by a small but measurable amount, countering a decades-old assumption.

Since, scientists have proven that HFCs can be 10,000 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat within our atmosphere. Although the 2015 Paris Agreement directly regulates some types of GHGs, it doesn't touch upon HFCs.

CO2 accounts for 82% of greenhouse gas emissions—but HFCs are on track to account for 12% of annual CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050. The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development recently stated that “HFCs are the fastest growing greenhouse gases in much of the world, increasing at a rate of 10-15% per year.” In the U.S., Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz believes HFC emissions are projected to triple by 2030.

Through policy and partnerships, we could prevent a 0.5°C rise in global temperatures by phasing out HFCs.

Concentrated action could prevent 100 to 200 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions by 2050, preventing the eminent 0.5°C rise in global temperatures. How will we do this? By creating partnerships between the private and public sector, and through policy negotiations intertwining the developed and developing world. The graph above shows the imperative need to work towards mitigating future-HFC consumption in developing nations.

For example, only 9% of Indians currently own air conditioning. As one of the hottest countries in the world, it can be expected that the most common purchase after a rise in income is buying A/C. Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, estimates that over 700 million HFC-containing A/Cs are on track to enter these homes.

In Rwanda, UN delegates are actively discussing the Motreal Protocol amendment set to freeze consumption and production of HFCs. This amendment will most likely require developed nations to act faster than developing nations, but implementation dates are split. Although the US wants their emissions to freeze and fall by 2021 and China between 2023-2025, India wants a much more flexible time frame—nearing 2030—because of Modi’s fear of haltered industrial growth. He stated that shifting supply chains away from HFCs could cost India between $15 and $50 billion by 2050. Countries, like Brazil and Pakistan, are voicing equal concerns.

As such, 16 developed nations, including the U.S., Germany, and Australia, have already agreed to provide $27 million to support the phase-out. Bill Gates and other private philanthropists have pledged more than $53 million to promote energy efficient alternatives. President Obama has led the United States through heaps of policy to protect our planet against climate change. Regarding HFCs, the White House has pursued robust action through the Climate Action Plan, the Significant New Alternatives Policy, and a number of Executive Orders.

On the public sector side, the U.S. Department of Energy has funded two research and development projects since April 2015. The goal: find environmentally-friendly refrigerants, and improve costs and performance of advanced vapor compression technologies. President Obama has engaged the private sector in additional commitments. Giant refrigerant-using companies, such as Target, Dupont, and Dow Chemical, have already pledged to move away from HFCs. “This initiative is a great opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together to solve a critical problem,” Gates stated. America must continue do their part to spur innovation and increase investments into developing nations in order to move towards clean alternatives to protect our planet.

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