Coolants that warm earth on way out, finally

The decision taken in Kigali to phase out HFCs can avoid 0.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century
<p>Montreal Protocol may help phase out HFCs [image by UNEP/Twitter]</p>

Montreal Protocol may help phase out HFCs [image by UNEP/Twitter]

Less than a year after finalising the historic Paris Agreement, the world wrapped up another major deal to fight climate change on the morning of October 15, authorising an amendment to the ozone-saving Montreal Protocol that can prove crucial in reaching the target of keeping global temperature rise within two degree Celsius from pre-industrial times.

After week-long negotiations at the newly-constructed convention centre in the Rwandan capital Kigali, negotiators sat through the night on Friday to finalise the amendment that will allow the Montreal Protocol to eliminate a set of hydroflurocarbon (HFC) gases that are not ozone-depleting but are hundreds or thousands of times more dangerous than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.

The amendment will ensure that the world would have eliminated almost all of its HFCs by 2050. Estimates are that this single measure can avoid about 0.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.

“Last year in Paris, we promised to keep the world safe from the worst effects of climate change. Today, we are following through on that promise. This is about much more than the ozone layer and HFCs. It is a clear statement by all world leaders that the green transformation started in Paris is irreversible and unstoppable,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment Programme.

HFCs are gases used predominantly as coolants in the air-conditioning and refrigerant industry. Globally, they account for only about 5% of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as of now but their use is growing rapidly, faster than any other GHG, especially in developing countries like India. At an average global growth rate of about 10% per year, HFCs are estimated to account for one-fifth of all GHG emissions by 2050 if unrestricted use continues.

Considering the fact that they needed to be eliminated quickly, countries had, for a few years now, been inclined to use the Montreal Protocol mechanism to phase-out the HFCs instead of the Paris Agreement which was still in the making. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a legally-binding arrangement, is considered to be the most successful environmental agreement so far, having phased-out 98% of all ozone-damaging chemicals in the just over 25 years of its existence.

The amendment finalised in Kigali is expected to do something similar to HFCs over the next 30 years.

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will ensure that at least 85% of all HFCs in the world will be eliminated by 2047. This timeline is much shorter for developed countries that need to phase out 85% of their HFC production and consumption, as compared to their average values in the period 2011-13, by the year 2036.

One group of developing countries, that includes China, the biggest producer of HFCs as of now, has to reduce its HFC use by 80% of its average value in the period 2020-22 by the year 2040. The other group of developing countries, that includes India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and a few other oil economies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have time until 2047 to make 85% reduction in HFC use compared to average values in the period 2026-28.

Here is the phase-out schedule. The reductions are based on average HFC consumption in baseline years:

Developed Countries: Baseline Year 2011-13; Freeze Year already past; 1st Reduction 10% by 2019; 2nd Reduction 40% by 2024; 3rd Reduction 70% by 2029; 4th Reduction 80% by 2034; Plateau 85% by 2036.

Developing Countries Group 1 (All developing countries except those in Group 2): Baseline Year 2020-22; Freeze Year 2024; 1st Reduction 10% by 2029; 2nd Reduction 30% by 2035; 3rd Reduction 50% by 2040; Plateau 80% by 2045.

Developing Countries Group 2 – India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, GCC: Baseline Year 2024-26; Freeze Year 2028; 1st Reduction 10% by 2032; 2nd Reduction 20% by 2037; 3rd Reduction 30% by 2042; Plateau 85% by 2047.

The amendment can have enormous impact on slowing down global warming. Estimates show that this amendment would avoid emissions of 70 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2020 to 2050, or more than 2.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. This is like shutting more than 750 coal power stations of 500 MW capacity each.

“This is a major breakthrough. This is the biggest step we can take in the year after the Paris Agreement against the widening threats from climate change. And bringing HFCs under the Montreal Protocol sends a clear signal to the global marketplace to start replacing these dangerous chemicals with a new generation of climate-friendly and energy-efficient alternatives,” David Doniger, director of Climate and Clean Air Programme at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council, said.

India-US quibble

The deal was finalised after night-long quibbling between India and the United States over several provisions in the draft. Thanks to India, which had been insisting for a late baseline period (of 2024-26 as compared to 2020-22 that China and many others agreed to) for itself, developing countries have two different phase-out schedules in the Montreal Protocol. For most of the week, discussions at the conference had centred around whether to let India, and some other countries, have more time to initiate action on HFCs. It was only after US Secretary John Kerry had two rounds of talks with Indian Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave on Friday that the US agreed to the proposal and that paved the way for the drafting of the amendment.

India had however made a unilateral announcement earlier in Kigali to eliminate the super GHG called HFC-23 right away.

See India vows to kill super greenhouse gas

The Kigali Amendment comes just three weeks ahead of the next round of climate talks at Marrakech in Morocco where countries will resume working on the Paris Agreement to make it operational. Earlier this month, the Paris Agreement received the required number of ratifications to enter into effect 30 days later, on November 4. It will probably have the fastest entry into force of any major international agreement, having come about in less than a year of being finalised.