One of the great stumbling blocks of climate talks in the last 15 years has been that America refuses to move to cut emissions of greenhouse gases until China does – but at the weekend, leaders of the world’s two great polluters reached agreement to phase out one of the most potent of them, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
It was heralded as a great breakthrough, and if it works it will seriously improve the chances of the world avoiding dangerous climate change. But curiously the phasing out of HFCs will be carried out under the Montreal Protocol and not the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Montreal Protocol was set up before the climate change convention to deal with a completely different threat, the hole in the ozone layer. It has always been a more successful international forum for agreement.
This is because the chemicals that were causing the problem with the ozone layer were made in a relatively few countries and by large manufacturers. As a result governments were able to control emissions quickly and directly by regulating the industry and creating deadlines to find non-harmful substitutes.
The problem was that in solving one problem by producing substitute chemicals that did not hurt the ozone layer, another was made worse. HFCs are potent greenhouse gases, 1,000 times more so than carbon dioxide.
So the agreement to phase them out taken at the week-end, instigated by President Barack Obama and agreed by President Xi Jinping of China, will save the equivalent of two years worth of current global warming emissions. Very important is the fact that while carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years HFCs fall out of the atmosphere in a few years staving off rapid warming.
So phasing them out is extremely good news for the environment. The big question is whether this will translate into action on other greenhouse gases, particularly since this needs to be done under the Climate Change Convention and not the Montreal Protocol.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), was optimistic. The announcement, Mr. Steiner said “could signal a new and perhaps transformational chapter in international cooperation on climate change.
“Along with a variety of recent signals from several key countries including China and the United States, this one on HFCs by these two key economies is welcome as the world moves towards a universal UN treaty on climate change by 2015.”
“It is widely recognised that securing a meaningful treaty and keeping an average global temperature rise under 2 degrees C this century will require all hands on deck—what, however, must not be overlooked or sidelined is the urgency to also tackle the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, as part of negotiations underway under the UN Climate Convention.”
Six million die
This last of Mr Steiner’s points appears to be the problem. By comparison with carbon dioxide, HFCs are an easier problem to solve. Even before the US/China agreement 112 countries had urged phasing them out and a group called the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of several hundred retailers, manufacturers, service providers, and other stakeholders from over 70 countries had agreed to begin phasing out HFC refrigerants beginning in 2015.
But governments may also be able to reach agreement on other short-lived greenhouse gases, according to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.
Of these the principle culprits are methane, low-level ozone, which also damages health and crops, and black carbon soot, which kills an estimated six million people a year. Methane can be captured and used as a fuel and cutting out the other two has important economic incentives as well as saving lives.
Perhaps the biggest single factor is the attitude of the new Chinese government. Despite the lack of democracy the Chinese are under pressure from the population because of the horrific effect of pollution on daily life, particularly the health of children. Unlike most of the American population the Chinese also realise that climate change is a threat to their economy as well as their health.
Come the next round of climate talks in Warsaw in November it may be China trying to persuade the Americans and reluctant parties like Brazil and India that action on carbon dioxide is needed too.
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