Kigali talks agree phase out of HFCs

A global deal to phase out planet-warming chemicals used in millions of air-conditioners and refrigerators has been sealed in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, marking the fourth significant move to curb climate change in the past two weeks.

The agreement to start ending the use of hydrofluorocarbons, better known as HFCs, was hailed as a “monumental step forward” by US secretary of state, John Kerry, who said it would help avoid as much as 0.5C of future global warming.

HFCs are widely used in refrigerants and were designed to replace a different class of chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, which damage the ozone layer.

CFCs were phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties, and scientists say the thinning ozone layer over the Antarctic is now starting to heal.

But HFCs turned out to pose other problems: they are highly potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and their use is soaring as air conditioners and other cooling devices become more affordable for consumers in emerging market economies with hot climates, a situation expected to worsen as global temperatures climb.

For the past seven years governments have been trying to amend the Montreal Protocol to end the use of HFCs as well.

Those efforts culminated in a meeting in Kigali this week where delegates from more than 150 countries finally reached a compromise agreement that will see developed nations start to phase down the chemicals from 2019.

Developing countries will freeze their HFC levels in 2024, though some will be allowed to wait until 2028, the UN said in a statement.

Environmental campaigners who had been lobbying for the amendment conceded the final outcome was not as ambitious as it could have been but still amounted to a significant step in the fight against global warming.

“We came to take a half a degree Celsius out of future warming, and we won about 90 per cent of our climate prize,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.

There are already a number of alternatives to HFCs and campaigners are confident that companies will step up production of these chemicals quickly, leading to a faster phase-out than the Kigali deal has formally mandated.

Many say the new agreement is more concrete than the Paris climate pact adopted in December, which is based on countries volunteering progressively tougher plans to curb greenhouse gases.

An unexpected rush by countries to ratify the Paris accord saw it reach the threshold needed last week to formally enter into force by November 4, just 11 months after its adoption, a record speed for pacts of this nature.

That move came a day before governments agreed the first aviation climate accord and shortly after Canada’s government unveiled a plan to put a price on carbon dioxide pollution in all the country’s provinces by 2018.

The HFC agreement was strongly backed by the US, where outgoing President, Barack Obama, and Mr Kerry, a veteran climate champion, have been keen to make climate action a legacy of their administration.

The EU also helped broker the deal and adopted a measure to phase out HFCs in 2014.

We have shown through our own action on HFCs that this is a fast and cost-effective way to reduce emissions,” said EU climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete.

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