This week I’ve been looking at refrigeration and its potential impact on climate change. As we’ve seen, refrigeration technology needs to move beyond HFCs and adopt coolants that neither affect the ozone layer nor the climate. HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, are commonly used chemical coolants that can be thousands of times more powerful than CO2 when released into the atmosphere.
The good news is that the big step has already been taken. Negotiators from 170 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda, in October 2016. Four days later they had an agreement: from 2019, rich countries would begin phasing out HFCs, with middle income and low income countries following from 2024 and from 2028 respectively.
Manufacturers will have to switch from HFCs to natural coolants such as ammonia or propane. And since the rich countries will do it first, less wealthy countries will benefit from the research and the economies of scale further down the road.
Remarkably, the agreement is legally binding, there are sanctions for breaching it, and it’s financed by the richer countries. Everything that the Paris Agreement is not, basically.
If it works as planned, it will eliminate emissions equivalent to half a degree of warming – a significant contribution to curbing climate change. And yet, the Kigali discussions don’t even have a Wikipedia page in English.
The reason it’s not well known is presumably because the Kigali Accord is not a new agreement, but an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 agreement to ban CFCs and prevent the destruction of the ozone layer. It was more niche and less news-worthy than many other international negotiations. And the Montreal Protocol is widely considered a success story. It’s less controversial, even though the end result will be about climate change. Even the countries usually responsible for wrecking climate talks appeared to play ball in Kigali.
In fact, President Obama had spotted this precise opportunity. With Republicans blocking climate regulation at home and suspicious of international agreements, Obama recognised that the Montreal Protocol was somehow in a different category. He put in three years of groundwork on HFCs before the Kigali talks, including top level discussions with Xi Jinping. Needless to say the US under Donald Trump hasn’t ratified it, but that can happen when he’s gone.
Another factor was the participation of industry – again, something that has good precedent with the Montreal Protocol. The key industry isn’t refrigeration necessarily, but the chemical companies that develop and supply the coolants. Since replacements are available, they don’t stand to lose out from the ban and they have not opposed it. The direction of travel was already set, since the EU was acting on HFCs already, and a number of big companies such as Coca-Cola had said they were going to stop using them.
Anyway, the upshot is that HFCs are a major threat to a stable climate, but the end of their production and use is already in sight. It’s not a done deal – it still needs more ratifying countries before it comes into force. Have a look at the list and if your country isn’t on there yet, ask why not.
Still, I find it rather refreshing to come across a major climate change problem, and then find that there’s already an international agreement covering it. Good work.