New climate deal hailed as ‘monumental’ despite some doubts of impact

Air conditioners line a street in Singapore. (Credit: Peter Morgan/flickr)

The international community hammered out a deal to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons at a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, over the weekend. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated the agreement to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases as a “monumental step forward.” But some see it as more of a baby step forward.

Some scientists estimate that the plan would cut global warming by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. If they are right, it is a major win for the global goal to limit warming to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris climate change agreement. Other scientists disagree, estimating that the deal would limit global warming by closer to 0.2 degrees. Some say even less.

If nothing changed from today, it is expected that the planet would be 3.6 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The independent “Climate Action Tracker” shows that current pledges made through recent climate deals knock down that estimate to 2.7 degrees. A further reduction by a half degree puts the world on the brink of meeting its minimum goal, hence the hype.

“Agreeing to a deal to phase down the use of [hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)]is the single most important step we can take to limit the warming of the planet. We all know that the window of time that we have to prevent the worst climate impacts from happening is in fact narrowing, and it is closing fast,” said Kerry in a statement after the deal was reached.

The new agreement piggybacks on the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which sought limits on chemical released by refrigerants and other industrial processes that were harmful to the ozone layer. Limitations included in the protocol helped to reduce bad emissions, but some of the things that took their place were not much better.

HFCs, mostly produced by air conditioners, are one example. They don’t harm the ozone layer, but they act as a greenhouse gas.

As more people entered the middle class, HFC use went up. Currently they are minor contributors to greenhouse gases but hold the potential for more harm than carbon dioxide. The worry is that the rapid rise of countries like China and India would accelerate the use of HFC-emitting air conditioners.

Some 170 countries participated in the process of adding an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that limited CFC use. The process of gradually phasing out the use of some HFC substances will start in 2019. China and the more than 100 developing countries party to the amendment have a little more time. They can start in 2024.

The difference in timing reflects the relative ease with which wealthy and poor countries can adhere to the plan. New technologies already limit HFCs. Major corporations that use refrigerants, like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, are replacing old systems with ones that are HFC-free. Even the EU banned HFCs from car air conditioners five years ago.

Implementing the change in wealthy countries should go smoothly. The same cannot be said for India and China, as the Guardian’s John Vidal pointed out. He wrote that developing countries are saddled with old refrigeration and coolant technologies. That requires either spending money to upgrade current systems or investing in the technologies that can fix the emissions problem. Neither option will be cheap.

Leaving all of that aside, there is great potential in the new deal. If the higher projections are right, it could help to keep the planet from a global warming disaster. Even if they are wrong there are still some major changes needed to get below the 2 degrees threshold, let alone reach the more aspirational 1.5 degrees goal.

Share.

About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.