Lost under the shouting and the shootings, the bombings and the bombast, you might have missed the biggest news of the weekend: 170 countries signed a legally binding agreement that might just save the planet.
Or at least go some way towards it. The rich, the middling and the developing nations went to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. After four days and three nights of hard work, they agreed on a way to eliminate 90% of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and take 0.5 deg C out of future global warming.
HFCs are the grandchildren of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that were formerly used in spraycans. CFCs were banned in the 1990s when they were found to erode the ozone layer – the blanket of gas in the upper stratosphere that protects Earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet rays – and replaced by HFCs.
But it emerged that HFCs, while safe for the now-healing ozone, are thousands of times worse for trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
HFCs are used in refrigerators and air conditioners. According to the Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, air conditioning is the cause of the largest growth in HFCs – and the world is likely to have another 700 million air conditioners by 2030.
That’s because rapidly growing countries such as China and India have adopted air-conditioning in homes, offices and cars over the past decade.
Described as “fiendishly complicated”, the Kigali deal has taken years to negotiate in various technical and political forums. The final agreement caps and reduces the use of HFCs in a gradual process beginning in the richest countries, including Australia and New Zealand, in 2019.
More than 100 developing countries will start taking action from 2024, a date that has sparked concern that the changes will be implemented too slowly.
China will begin phase-out in 2024. A small group of countries, including India, Pakistan and some Gulf states, secured a 2028 start on the grounds that their economies need time to grow. That is three years earlier than India, the world’s third-worst polluter, first proposed.
The result was achieved thanks to several factors: the agreement to give countries different time scales; major chemical and food companies accepting change; the determination of US secretary of state John Kerry to agree a plan before the presidential election; and developing countries agreeing to invest heavily in new technologies.
Because nearly all HFCs are made by a handful of giant western chemical companies and are used in air-conditioning units and cooling systems made and sold in rich countries, it was relatively easy for their governments to put pressure on a single global industry. Alternatives such as hydrocarbons, ammonia and CO2 are widely available, safe, approved and on the market.
The EU has already started to phase out HFCs and has banned their use in cars since 2011. Global food and drink companies such as Coca Cola, Pepsi and Unilever have started to replace fluorinated gases with climate-friendly and natural refrigerants, which are more energy-efficient and can save money.
But it is much harder for India, China and other developing countries. Their companies rely on old technologies, and will now have to invest in R&D and upgrade or replace factories and equipment.
Just as in wider climate talks, they accepted that they are part of the problem and may be on track to become the main HFC users, but insisted that – like climate change – this is a western problem dumped on them.