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Why Rwanda HFC agreement is a big deal, how it happened

HFCs, ironically, had come into use to solve another environmental problem.

Written by Amitabh Sinha
Updated: October 18, 2016 11:22:27 am
kigali, hfc, hfc gas, hydrofluorocarbon hydrofluorocarbon gas, climate change, kigalai climate change, climate change meet, india news, world news US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, in Kigali on Friday, hours before nations reached a deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons from air conditioners and refrigerators as part of efforts to fight climate change. (Source: AP)

The world wants to ensure that the continuing rise in Earth’s average temperatures, as a result of global warming, doesn’t go beyond 2 degrees Celsius compared to average temperatures in pre-industrial times — that is, around the 1850s. That, science says, is essential to prevent “catastrophic and irreversible” impacts of climate change. A number of small island countries like Maldives, Fiji and the Marshall Islands — and even non-island countries like Bangladesh — have, however, been arguing for years that this is not good enough; that they face the possibility of being submerged under rising seas even if temperature rise is kept to 2 degrees Celsius, and the effort, therefore, should be to keep the rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Accordingly, the Paris Agreement on climate change, finalised last year, seeks to ensure that the Earth’s warming does not go beyond 2 degrees Celsius, while continuing efforts to keep it within 1.5 degrees. Achieving this target requires monumental global action. Every economic activity across the world — energy, transportation, industry, agriculture, and more — is in for overhaul. Consumption must be reduced. Efficiency needs to be improved at all levels. Major lifestyle and behavioural changes will be needed.

And all this, and much more, needs to happen simultaneously, over a prolonged 50-70-year period. Because any one, or even a smaller set of interventions, will bring only minuscule improvements.

It is in this context that the significance of the agreement reached in Kigali needs to be seen. More than 190 countries, after a weeklong meeting in the picturesque capital of Rwanda, decided on Saturday to phase out the use of HFCs, short for hydrofluorocarbons, over the next 30 years. This single, relatively easy and painless intervention has the potential to prevent a rise of about 0.5 degrees Celsius in global temperatures by the end of the century. No other intervention comes even close in terms of returns offered, ease of implementation, or cost impacts. The HFC phaseout is not just the lowest hanging fruit on climate action, but also the most rewarding.

The danger from HFCs

HFCs, ironically, had come into use to solve another environmental problem. They came in to replace the CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, gases that were being used extensively in the airconditioning and refrigerant industries, and also for some other applications, in the 1970s and 1980s. CFCs were found to be primarily responsible for a hole in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, which could have dangerous health impacts. In 1987, the world negotiated the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase these chemicals out. The Protocol became effective in 1989, and in the next 25 years, has succeeded in eliminating, almost completely, the use of CFCs. The HFCs, which were just as effective for industrial applications, replaced the CFCs all but seamlessly.

It was realised only later that while HFCs did not deplete the ozone layer — which, incidentally, has been repaired considerably in the last quarter century — these were very powerful greenhouse gases, much more dangerous than carbon dioxide, which is mainly blamed for global warming. A set of 19 HFCs are used in different applications and many of them are several hundreds or thousands of times more potent than CO2.

Despite their high global warming potential (GWP), these gases currently account for a very small fraction of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world, less than 5%, mainly because they are used in very few sectors of industry. In India, they constitute less than 1% of total emissions. However, these happen to be the fastest growing greenhouse gases because of the rapid growth of the airconditioning industry, particularly in developing countries like India. It is estimated that if this is not checked, these gases would account for 19% of global emissions by the year 2050.

Amending Montreal Protocol

While the world was attempting, over the past decade, to finalise a global agreement on climate change to cut emissions of all greenhouse gases, including HFCs, it was realised that HFCs needed to be treated on a higher priority. Suggestions to phase out HFCs through the already-successful Montreal Protocol were first made some 7 years ago. But the Protocol, a legally-binding agreement, was meant to deal with only ozone-depleting substances — which HFCs were not. So, it was proposed to amend the Montreal Protocol to enable it to phase out HFCs as well.

A few countries, including India, were initially not comfortable with the idea of including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol. They argued that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and whatever new arrangement succeeded it, should continue to deal with HFCs as all other greenhouse gases. There was an important reason for this. The Montreal Protocol seeks the elimination of harmful chemicals by all its member countries, though on different time schedules. The Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, requires only a set of developed countries to mandatorily accept emission reduction targets. Developing countries, if they reduced emissions, could receive ‘carbon credits’ and sell them in carbon markets to earn revenues. In fact, a few companies in India and China did earn millions by reducing one particular HFC, called HFC-23, which, incidentally, India decided to destroy at one go last week when the Kigali meeting was on.

Baselines and freeze year

Once everyone agreed to use the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs, it came down to negotiating the details. Recognising the different situations in the developed and developing countries, the Protocol has always provided for a faster and early phasedown schedule of harmful substances for developed countries, and a slower and delayed one for developing countries.

Both sets of countries are assigned a ‘baseline year’ (or three-year period), and a ‘freeze year’. The production or consumption of the harmful substance, like HFC, in the baseline year (or the average of three-year period) serves as the baseline amount against which reductions are assigned in the phasedown schedule. The freeze year, which is a few years after the baseline period, is the time from when the use of the harmful chemical must begin to go below the average amounts used in the baseline period. The use of the chemical can grow between the baseline year and the freeze year, but must come down to at least baseline levels in the freeze year.

Most countries at the Kigali meeting were agreed on a 2011-13 baseline period for developed countries and a 2020-22 baseline for developing countries. However, India and some other countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, were arguing for a later baseline period of 2024-26 for developing countries. A delayed baseline period would allow these countries to let their HFC use grow unrestrained for a few more years, giving them more headroom to start making reductions.

These countries also demanded a 2030 freeze year for developing countries. Others, mainly the United States, wanted the freeze year to be 2027.

The deal

After some last minute haggling in a bilateral meeting between India and the US, the final deal for amending the Montreal Protocol was struck. India, and its handful of supporters, agreed to advance their freeze year to 2028 while managing to get a 2024-26 baseline period. The other developing countries, including China, Brazil and South Africa, stuck to their earlier baseline period of 2020-22, and freeze year of 2024.

For the first time in the Montreal mechanism, developing countries got divided into two different groups with different phasedown schedules (see box left). The amendment, which will come into force in 2019, will ensure that the developed countries eliminate at least 85% of their HFCs from the baseline period of 2011-13 by the year 2036. The Chinese group of developing countries has the target of eliminating 80% of their 2020-22 baseline HFC use by the year 2045, while the Indian group will have to phase out 85% of their baseline HFCs by the year 2047.

Early estimates show that this amendment, though slightly weaker than imagined because of the split in developing countries, would still be able to achieve about 90% of the objective of preventing 0.5 degree-Celsius temperature rise.

amitabh.sinha@expressindia.com

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