Delegates from more than 150 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, last week, to agree on a strategy for diminishing the worldwide use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Historically, people started using these chemicals for refrigeration, air conditioning, and aerosols in response to the scientific finding that their predecessors — chlorofluorocarbons — had begun to destroy the ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan viewed the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which successfully phased out CFCs, as the “single most effective international agreement” of any kind. Scientists say the ozone layer over the Antarctic is now starting to heal over because CFC levels have sunk.
However, it turns out that the new-generation chemicals — HFCs — are short-lived but also very potent greenhouse gases themselves, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Adding their potency to the increases in affordability and general use of air conditioning worldwide, HFC impacts could be swift and considerable in themselves.
Early in the Rwandan Montreal Protocol talks, India and some other fast-developing nations pressed for a slow reduction of HFCs, with a peak in 2031. They feared that a rapid transition might cripple their economies. Most other parties proposed a technology reversal sometime in the 2020s. India did promise to destroy HFC23, one of the chemicals in question.
US Secretary of State John Kerry flew in Thursday to add force to the calls for an ambitious phase-down schedule. Kerry said that worldwide agreement to discontinue HFCs could divert 0.5°C of global warming — or 25% of the current goal of the universal Paris Agreement — by the end of this century.
Striking a common chord on these pollutants demanded consensus between developing and developed countries, as the Paris treaty did. The compromise agreement reached requires developed nations to start phasing down use of HFCs in 2019, and developing nations to freeze HFC levels in 2024. Altogether, the pact will reduce global levels of HFCs between 80% and 85% by 2047.
Says Andrew Light, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the World Resources Institute and former senior climate advisor in the US State Department:
“Achieving this historic agreement was hard fought over nearly a decade of leader-level negotiations, and a result of thousands of contributions from businesses, non-governmental organizations, and faith communities. Over time an astonishing array of countries — from the largest developed and emerging economies to the most poor and vulnerable states — united to take this bold step to tackle the common threat of climate change.”
“Over the last year the global march to tackle climate change has been unwavering,” Light notes. “The Paris Agreement, the ICAO Agreement, and the Montreal Protocol amendment are three pillars that underpin a global transformation to a far safer and more prosperous planet.”