How an amendment to the Montreal Protocol and energy efficiency can put the brakes on global warming
Today there is added momentum toward what would be the single biggest international deal to stop catastrophic climate change since the 2015 Paris Agreement: an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in conjunction with an international push toward energy efficiency in cooling systems.
At the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Secretary Kerry announced the Obama Administration’s sweeping public, private, and philanthropic partnership in advance of the final Montreal Protocol negotiations of the year which will take place in Kigali, Rwanda in two weeks.
At that meeting, nations will have the opportunity to reach agreement on an ambitious amendment to the Protocol with an early freeze date and a schedule to phase out HFCs by mid-century. Because HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases, an ambitious amendment would prevent approximately .5*C of warming. Better yet, if this phase down is paired with energy efficiency gains, the impact of this deal could double to prevent a full degree Celsius of warming this century.
Today, 16 donor nations pledged $23 million toward Article 5 countries in need of assistance to support an ambitious target. In parallel to this public support, a coalition of foundations and philanthropists including Tom Steyer, Bill Gates, the Hewlett Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and 15 others, has pledged $53 million toward programs to spur innovation in energy efficiency and the widespread deployment of efficient appliances in the developing world.
“Climate change is an urgent and accelerating crisis, and we must act quickly to avert its worst impacts,” said Steyer, “Supporting energy efficiency efforts in developing nations is necessary to reduce greenhouse gases, address the climate crisis, and strengthen the global framework needed for business to accelerate our transition to clean energy.”
In the coming weeks, climate champions will be rooting for the strongest possible amendment to the Montreal Protocol: one that starts immediately, sets aggressive timetables for the HFC phase-down, and is paired with the fiscal commitments to help all nations make this transition equitably.
Here is more background, so you can follow along:
Wait, I thought Montreal Protocol was about the ozone hole. What’s it got to do with climate?
Currently, the Montreal Protocol is not a climate-focused agreement, but it has the tools to be an ideal policy vessel for the type of industrial challenge posed by HFCs.
In fact, HFC’s got their start with the Montreal Protocol, one of the biggest environmental wins in modern history. By the late 1970’s, scientists knew that the ozone layer was thinning due to ozone depleting chemicals, predominantly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are also powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gases. This threat to the ozone layer was center stage in 1985 when scientists discovered a giant hole was forming in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The ozone layer acts like global sunscreen, blocking most UV rays coming from the sun and protecting the earth’s surface. There was widespread alarm at its depletion, and the international community acted.
An agreement was forged for an orderly but rapid phase-out of CFCs. These chemicals were used industrially and commercially as propellants, refrigerants, and industrial cleaners. They were widespread at the consumer level, but analysts realized that relatively few companies anchored the supply chain. Better yet, there were ready alternatives for these products that did not cause known damage to ozone. For products where ready alternatives were not available, setting a timeline spurred private sector innovation and substitutes were found. To facilitate the transition, wealthier nations provided financial and technical assistance to help developing nations reach the global targets.
As of 2016, the hole in the ozone layer is healing. The Montreal Protocol remains a textbook example (literally) of international governance and environmental policy success.
But fast forward to 2016 and the chemicals that widely replaced CFCs as refrigerants and thermal insulating foams, HFCs, are significantly accelerating global warming. What was a successful transition for the ozone layer turned out to be a problematic move on climate. Some HFCs have thousands of times higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, so for every ton released into the atmosphere, HFCs have a much greater effect on the climate than carbon dioxide. By 2050, NOAA projects that HFCs could contribute as much warming as 10% of all carbon emissions, up from 1% today.
Now the same agreement that spurred HFC proliferation is being proposed as a means to get rid of these super-pollutants because the Montreal Protocol has jurisdiction over substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals as well as the original offenders. The U.S., Mexico and Canada have put forth an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would freeze HFC production in 2021 and phase down their use over 30 years. Just like the original agreement, this would leverage the infrastructure established in the first challenge toward climate — in particular, it would make funds available through the Multilateral Fund available to developing nations to ease the cost of transition through industrial aid and technical assistance.
That’s cool. But why is everyone bringing up A/C?
You can’t talk about the impact of HFCs without looking at the global growth of refrigeration and air conditioning. HFCs are effective refrigerants and have been integrated into appliances worldwide. They are the fastest growing climate pollutant due to the growth of refrigeration and home cooling systems. In Indonesia, Brazil and India alone, the number of households with air conditioner units is increasing at 10-15% per year. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab predicts that 700 million A/C units will be installed by 2030 and 1.6 billion by 2050.
As it stands now, many of these units will contain HFCs.
There are safe and reliable alternatives for many of these HFC uses on the market today– including hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, and numerous others–but changing the refrigerant composition requires unit designs to be reimagined and production lines to shift. This is where countries have the chance to double down on the climate benefits of reducing HFCs by ensuring all new cooling units integrate best-in-class efficiency standards.
Cooling drives 40-60% of peak summer electricity loads, but with current technologies it is cost effective and technically feasible to see 30% gains in efficiency on cooling appliances.
Berkeley Lab concludes that efficiency gains and HFC reduction together would be equivalent to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 98 billion tons–that’s 18 times TOTAL carbon dioxide emissions from the United States last year!
This synergy is behind today’s philanthropic initiative to ensure that all countries have the industrial and technical assistance they need to realize the full potential of an aggressive phase-down of HFCs coupled with energy efficiency improvements. The efficiency fund is a philanthropic seed investment to preserve the climate, increase clean energy innovation, enable the widespread deployment of air conditioning to developing communities, lock-in more affordable rates for cooling through efficiency, and ensure that all nations benefit fully from this global action.
What’s next? Negotiators to Kigali
As the UN General Assembly wraps this week, momentum will carry to Kigali, Rwanda for the 28th Meeting of the Parties (MOP) on October 8-14. India and China, both significant producers and users, have pledged to act on HFCs. The High Ambition Group, led by the United States, Canada and Mexico, and joined today by more than 100 countries, is pushing for a fast timeline.
Today’s announcements from the private sector and philanthropic community demonstrate that all sectors are willing to come together to make a strong agreement a reality. From a climate mitigation perspective, it is one of the most cost-effective ways to buy time against a rapidly changing climate.
In October, the international community will call for a strong agreement.
This has every chance of being the climate deal of 2016. Stayed tuned.