Hydrofluro-what? A Quick Explanation of the HFC Protocol

over 2 years ago

By Chelsea Henderson

While much fanfare and back patting ensued after the Paris Climate Accord was struck in late December 2015, unless you are a negotiator or climate change wonk to the nth degree, the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) deal agreed to recently in Kigali, Rwanda might have gone unnoticed. We'd like to change that trend line given the significance this pact has on global efforts to combat warming.

In this latest meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol —the ozone treaty ushered into existence by President Ronald Reagan and heralded as the most successful international environmental agreement— 197 countries agreed to a global phase out of HFCs, which in case you are unaware, replaced the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) at the heart of the Montreal Protocol. The ozone-friendly HFCs are commonly found in coolants for refrigerants and air conditioners, appliances that are more commonly used now than ever (thanks, climate change) with use on the rise especially in developing countries. At the time the original Protocol was negotiated, HFCs were the right alternative to CFCs, but as our focus shifted toward addressing another serious problem, i.e., climate change, a major drawback was identified: this greenhouse gas has 10,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and annually emits the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants.

So the parties to the Montreal Protocol got to work. The HFC amendment was seven years in the making and ultimately agreed to by 197 nations. While the Paris Accord is mostly a feel-good non-treaty, the HFC deal is legally binding and sets out timetables for reductions. Developed countries will phase down HFCs by 2019. Developing countries, including China, will have to cap their use by 2024, before ramping down. A smaller subset of nations, including India and Pakistan, will cap HFC use in 2028. The agreement includes incentives for countries to cut back HFCs on a faster track and also supports research and development of replacement chemicals. Like the underlying Montreal Protocol, HFC amendment has industry support; in fact, major U.S.-based chemical manufacturers have been producing HFC alternatives for almost two decades.

It is estimated that global HFC use could be reduced by 85 percent by 2047, which scientists say will remove the equivalent of approximately 70 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. In other words, the phase out will have the impact of stopping the world's CO2 fossil fuel emissions for two years. These are real, measurable results that will make a difference in the effort to address climate change.

Once again, the Montreal Protocol saves the day planet. (H/T the late Ronald Reagan.)