Over 190 countries have reached what has been described as a landmark step when they agreed in Kigali recently on a systematic process to replace the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners, with safer and lesser polluting alternatives.

HFCs were developed in response to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a global agreement requiring nations and manufacturers to find a substitute for chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs to curb the destruction of the ozone layer.

But subsequent research found that although they don’t harm the ozone layer, and that their concentration in the atmosphere may low, they are extremely powerful heat trappers. According to the UN environment agency UNEP, a unit of HFCs can warm the planet 1600 times more than a similar unit of carbon dioxide – considered the biggest source of global warming.

The Kigali amendment to the Montreal protocol requires the richest countries, including the United States, to freeze production and consumption of HFCs by 2018. Much of the rest of the world, including China, Brazil and all African countries, will do the same by 2024. India and a few other countries bargained hard to secure four more years; until 2028, before they will be required to stop the manufacture and consumption of HFCs.

India is said to have vigorously opposed a blanket ban because her people were on the verge of being able to afford air-conditioners powered by HFCs.

According to UNEP, alternatives to HFCs currently being explored include substances that do not deplete the ozone layer and have a smaller impact on the climate, such as ammonia or carbon dioxide. Super-efficient, cost effective cooling technologies are also being developed, which can help protect the climate both through reducing HFCs emissions and by using less energy.

If successfully implemented, the agreement should help prevent about half a degree Celsius of global warming by the end of the century.

The agreement has been described as a huge success by climate change experts but also as one of the increasing list of achievements to try to implement the Paris Agreement by keeping global warming below 2 degrees of post-industrial climate change.

Climate Action Network (CAN), a global network of over 1200 NGOs working to promote government and individual action to limit human-induced climate change to ecologically sustainable levels, praised the agreement as ‘a major score for global climate action.’

“The news from Kigali on HFCs as well as the recent outcome on aviation emissions shows that governments are taking the objective of the Paris Agreement seriously,” said CAN.

“The success of this agreement will be determined by how much developing countries can leapfrog HFCs and how much countries can avoid yet another chemical alternative like toxic HFOs and adopt natural refrigerants. This will be decisive in the coming months and years,” added Paula Tejón Carbajal, Global strategist at Greenpeace International, one of the CAN member organisations.


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