Countries near deal to phase out super warming HFCs

Formal negotiations on the Montreal Protocol in Dubai this week get world closer to tackling pollutants used in air conditioners

(credit: Pixabay)

Fridges for scrap in Australia. Factory-made chemicals used as coolants contribute to global warming (credit: Pixabay)

By Alex Pashley

Diplomats working to update a treaty in Dubai’s broiling heat this week can be thankful for air-conditioned conference rooms.

They are discussing the Montreal Protocol, which by banning CFCs is expected to fully restore the Earth’s damaged ozone layer by mid-century.

Unfortunately the CFC substitutes found for use as coolants in refrigerators and air con brought their own problems – they are highly potent warming gases.

After years of talking about talking, envoys from 200 countries have finally started formal negotiations to secure a phasedown of this new class of pollutants, HFCs, at the five-day UAE meeting.

An amendment to the 1987 protocol – the world’s first environmental pact – could avoid warming of 0.5C this century and up to 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, experts say.

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India, a major producer of the factory-made chemicals, has softened its previously obstructive stance. Gulf States, which as major consumers raised fears HFC replacements wouldn’t work in their hot climate, may be reassured by recent technology developments.

“All the former objections that maybe we shouldn’t do it, have disappeared,” said Durwood Zaelke at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), a US think tank.

“A phasedown of HFCs is inevitable – with the details and timings to be determined.”

Countries have stepped up action in recent years to tackle the pollutants, which can be up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The EU is cutting usage by 79% between 2015 and 2030. Canada and Australia are considering similar targets. The likes of Norway and Slovenia are using taxes.

The United States has outlawed certain blends of the chemicals and launched a raft of measures to spur climate-friendly substitutes.

President Barack Obama announced this month further private sector collaborations, which will see the US navy’s newest warships bear greener fridges.

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But it’s developing world action that is critical. Usage could triple within fifteen years, according to the Ozone secretariat, as growing middle classes start to cool their homes.

HFCs have risen from negligible levels to nearly 2% of global greenhouse gases today, according to the UN climate science panel, and are set to accelerate further.

Accordingly, delegates have tabled four proposals at the meeting which ends on Thursday.

Delegates from Kuwait and US chatting before the opening of the morning plenary (credit: ISSD)

Delegates from Kuwait and US chatting before the opening of the morning plenary on 1 November (credit: IISD Reporting Services)

Climate vulnerable Pacific island states are calling for the swiftest phasedown, followed by the European Union then North America.

India’s submission is less stringent, proposing a late freeze in 2031, with national governments retaining some control over the pace of cuts.

Financing and transferred technologies will be key. A fund has pooled over $3.3 billion for countries classed as “developing”, but more is needed. Reluctant countries may need incentives to get on board.

Clare Perry, a senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said exemptions for countries to win support might do the trick. Medical inhalers were one exemption under plans to reform CFCs, for example.

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With climate diplomats due to sign off a new global warming accord in December, political momentum has also spurred progress for the Dubai meeting.

“It’s the same governments, the same people. The problems are different, but if we can do with this HFCs, it will give huge impetus,” Perry told Climate Home.

IGSD’s Zaelke said an HFC phasedown would be a “downpayment” for Paris. “Countries like India could walk the high road of victory of Dubai and say to negotiators in Paris: We know what a fair treaty looks like for climate change, because we have just concluded one.”

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