Diplomats and politicians meeting in Vienna this week are working to seal a deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a powerful class of greenhouse gases that were originally introduced to replace chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants that had punched a hole in the ozone layer as well as contributing to climate change.
The “most abundant and fastest-growing” of the substances, HFC-134a, is active in the atmosphere for only 13.4 years, according to the Washington, DC-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD). But in that time, it’s responsible for 1,300 times as much warming as carbon dioxide causes in a decade.
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The international agreement would update the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty under which CFCs were originally banned. “If an amendment to the treaty can be adopted this year, advocates say, it could represent the single largest tangible piece of climate progress in all of 2016,” the Washington Post reports.
“The phase-out of HFCs will achieve the largest temperature reduction in this century—0.9°F—of any available policy action,” ex-Bill Clinton administration climate advisor Paul Bledsoe told the Post. “It will also eliminate one of the six major greenhouse gases” and reduce “near-term climate impacts.”
“The Montreal Protocol HFC amendment is now perceived universally in the climate context as the piece that you need to do this year,” added IGSD President Durwood Zaelke. “This year we have a tailwind, because the parties to the Paris agreement understand that they need the Montreal Protocol success to keep their own ambition and momentum going.”
HFCs are present in home and vehicle air conditioners, foams, solvents, and other products, and their use has increased with the elimination of CFCs. While their “effect now is very small,” said climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they’re the fastest-growing greenhouse gas. “So by banning HFCs, you prevent another disaster downstream. It could be as high as 0.5 to 1.0°C by the end of the century.”
David Doniger, head of NRDC’s climate and clean air program, said Vienna negotiators will have to agree on the respective responsibilities of developed and developing countries, and decide who will pay for the transition away from HFCs. “You have to have commitments for a schedule of reductions of these chemicals from developed countries, another schedule with a little bit of delay for developing countries, and then an agreement on money through which the developed countries help the developing ones with some of the transition costs,” he told the Post.
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