Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

HFCs and The Climate Summit: Hoping for Country Commitments

By Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA International Climate Policy Analyst

Tomorrow, for the first time ever, over 130 heads of state will gather in New York City to deliver bold pledges to combat climate change. This is the first time a meeting on climate change has been convened explicitly by the Secretary General before the General Assembly. Given the lack of success in creating lasting changes in global climate policy so far, this summit is an incredible opportunity. Although this summit is not a forum for reaching a climate agreement, it is a platform to demonstrate political will, which is a prerequisite for climate action.

While a plethora of climate related topics will be discussed at the conference, there is one thing we at EIA will be watching for: how soon will countries eliminate the use of the most potent greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)? Not because we think such a commitment is more important than others, but because it is the fastest, most cost-effective way to prevent 200 billion tonnes of carbon emissions by 2050. Need to put that into perspective? That’s the equivalent of shutting down more than 26,000 coal plants for two years!

It may seem like a no-brainer to you and me: stop using gases that destroy our climate—HFCs are hundreds to thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, and they are replaceable with gases that don’t harm the climate! As if that wasn’t reason enough, replacing HFCs with climate-friendly gases not only eliminates the demand for climate-killing refrigerants, but also reduces energy demand through energy efficiency gains.

So how can countries get this done? You see, HFCs were the gases that replaced ozone-destroying gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The Montreal Protocol, hailed as the most successful international environmental treaty, was created in the late 1980s to save the ozone layer by eliminating CFCs worldwide, and it can easily use the very same process to eliminate HFCs. Because HFCs are mostly used by the same industries and sectors that the Montreal Protocol successfully regulated previously, it makes sense to use the institution and mechanisms of the protocol for HFCs too. All we need now is for countries to show the same level of solidarity they did when dealing with CFCs and commit! Unfortunately, although more than 110 nations have declared their support to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs, a handful of vociferous opponents remain.

However, time is running out and countries need to act now. If HFC growth is left unchecked, then by the middle of this century climate damage from HFCs will nearly erase the climate benefit from having eliminated CFCs. Some countries including the United States, EU, Japan, and China already have HFC regulations in place. Several companies also realize the business opportunity in climate-friendly cooling, and are producing HFC-free products.

Yesterday the global community demonstrated that it stands ready for change, as over 300,000 people gathered in New York City for the Global Climate March and simultaneous marches occurred elsewhere around the planet. EIA will be watching closely tomorrow as world leaders and industry heads from around the world make their announcements. Will they step forward to announce definitive action on addressing climate change by committing to rid the world of HFCs? The truth is there is simply no other comparable near-term strategy for greenhouse gas mitigation. Clearly no country wants to stand on the wrong side of history?

Hope, as they say, springs eternal.