From CFCs to HFCs: The new refrigerator threat

Growth of air-conditioning and refrigerated storage, particularly in China and India, is making HFCs among the fastest growing sources of emissions - making next week's Paris meeting a crucial moment in the global warming fight.

Chances are, if you were to walk down the street, or even into the tearooms of most environmental government departments or NGOs, and asked people what the single most effective single policy measure to address global warming is, very few would be able to give you the right answer.

Even fewer would have any idea that an international meeting is taking place in Paris this week that is of historic importance in deciding whether the world is going to start pulling this lever within the most useful timeframes, or will keep arguing about it in relative obscurity for yet another year.

What might you hear? Rooftop solar PV panels? Closing coal-fired power stations? Massive expansion of public transport? Vegetarian diets?

Surprising as it is, the answer was recently outlined in a list of climate change combating policies compiled by The Economist.

Beyond doubt, the work already done by the ozone-layer-saving Montreal Protocol in largely getting rid of CFCs came at the top, and was approximately the same magnitude (135 billion tonnes CO2-e) of emissions abatement as all the other ideas put together.

More surprisingly still, the Montreal Protocol could yet deliver the same or more emissions abatement if it were to get moving on the now long-proposed amendments to include high Global Warming Potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons, the “super-greenhouse gases” HFCs introduced largely as replacements for the ozone depleting (and even more massive greenhouse gases) the CFCs.

Or in other words, if the Montreal Protocol fails to reach agreement on the amendment proposals to clean up the HFC mess it helped to create, the massive climate benefit it has inadvertently achieved will be soon eroded by the rapidly increasing rate of use of these powerful climate forcers.

As developing countries industrialise, growth of air-conditioning and refrigerated storage, particularly in China and India, is driving a 10-15% annual increase in HFCs’ atmospheric accumulation, making them among the fastest growing sources of emissions.

Studies project that in the absence of strong measures to help developing countries “leapfrog” the use of HFCs and move instead to genuinely climate safe solutions, and swift phase outs in developed countries, the HFCs’ slice of the global greenhouse gas emissions pie will rise from around 2% currently (impressive really, for gases introduced only 20 years ago) to anywhere between 9-19% of emissions by 2050. 

A recent authoritative study (Velders et.al. 2014) established that the climate benefits of a rapid HFC phase out are 40% greater than previously understood, once the time lag between production and emissions (leaking out of your car AC or supermarket) is properly accounted for.

First put forward in 2009, two proposals to control HFCs, one from the US, Canada and Mexico and a slightly more ambitious one from the Federated States of Micronesia, have been debated at great length at the twice-yearly Montreal Protocol meetings; but so far to no avail. In spite of firm support from well over 100 of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol since 2009.

Initially opposed fiercely by both China and India (among a few others), China dramatically changed their position in the first half of 2013, with Premier Xi Xinping publicly stating China’s support for tackling HFCs multilaterally at summits with US President Obama. Significant encouragement is being given in China for rapid and widespread adoption of natural refrigerant solutions ammonia, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide, with a massive rollout of highly efficient hydrocarbon domestic air conditioners anticipated next year.

India however has remained stubbornly intransigent at the Montreal Protocol meetings, causing a growing number of distinguished delegates to ponder why? Especially as high-level support for addressing HFCs has been made under the previous Indian government, but seemed not to trickle down to the officials’ level. Most curious, indeed.

Now that new Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have come out with a very strong consensus on the need to pull all levers to address climate change, including HFCs, it is hard to imagine India doing anything other than following China’s lead and quietly dropping their trenchant opposition to the formation of a ‘contact group’ to enable details of an acceptable amendment proposal to be thrashed out.

Extremely worrying indications are nevertheless circulating that this is unlikely, and that the flamboyant and idiosyncratic obstruction previously exhibited by India will be perpetuated at next week’s 26th Meeting of the Parties of the Montreal Protocol in Paris (#MOP26).

This will amount to flushing away the single most effective measure we have to achieve fast acting emissions abatement, and will make the main game of reducing CO2 emissions so much more difficult to achieve the same impact.

It is now time for the Montreal Protocol delegates, and the rest of the world climate policy community to be asking direct and penetrating questions about why the Indian delegation tail appears to have been wagging the government of India dog on this crucial element of climate policy for so long, and when will they be brought to heel?

All of us should hope Prime Minister Modi will make sure it won’t be too late for India to contribute to making a positive outcome by the end of this week.

Brent Hoare is a policy adviser for the Australian Refrigeration Association.