Nations, Fighting Powerful Refrigerant That Warms Planet, Reach Landmark Deal
By CORAL DAVENPORT
OCT. 15, 2016
Climate Deal Is Praised as a 'Great Success'
Negotiators from more than 170 countries celebrated in Rwanda on Saturday after reaching a legally binding accord to cut the worldwide use of a powerful planet-warming chemical used in air-conditioners. By REUTERS and ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date October 15, 2016. Photo by Cyril Ndegeya/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
KIGALI, Rwanda — Negotiators from more than 170 countries on Saturday reached a legally binding accord to counter climate change by cutting the worldwide use of a powerful planet-warming chemical used in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
The talks in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, did not draw the same spotlight as the climate change accord forged in Paris last year. But the outcome could have an equal or even greater impact on efforts to slow the heating of the planet.
President Obama called the deal “an ambitious and far-reaching solution to this looming crisis.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to fellow negotiators in Kigali, said, “It is likely the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet and limit the warming for generations to come.”
“It is,” Mr. Kerry added, “the biggest thing we can do in one giant swoop.”
While the Paris agreement included pledges by nearly every country to cut emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels that power vehicles, electric plants and factories, the new Kigali deal has a single target: chemical coolants called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, used in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
Complete coverage of the United Nations meeting in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, and efforts to reach an emissions deal.
HFCs are just a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but they function as a sort of supercharged greenhouse gas, with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.
The Kigali deal was seven years in the making, and is a compromise between rich nations and poorer, hotter ones, including some where rising incomes are just starting to bring air-conditioners within reach. Wealthier nations will freeze production of HFCs more quickly than poorer countries, though some nations, including those in Africa, elected to phase the chemicals out more rapidly than required, citing the grave threats they face from climate change.
While the Paris pledges are broad, they are also voluntary, often vague and dependent on the political will of future world leaders. In contrast, the Kigali deal includes specific targets and timetables to replace HFCs with more planet-friendly alternatives, trade sanctions to punish scofflaws, and an agreement by rich countries to help finance the transition of poor countries to the costlier replacement products.
So, narrow as it is, the new accord may be more likely to yield climate-shielding actions by industry and governments, negotiators say. And given the heat-trapping power of HFCs, scientists say the Kigali accord will stave off an increase of atmospheric temperatures of nearly one degree Fahrenheit.
That would be a major step toward averting an atmospheric temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which many experts think the world will be locked into a future of rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages, and more powerful hurricanes.
Over all, the deal is expected to lead to the reduction of the equivalent of 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — about two times the carbon pollution produced annually by the entire world.
The Kigali accord is “much, much, much stronger than Paris,” said Durwood Zaelke, the president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a research organization. “This is a mandatory treaty. Governments are obligated to comply.”
The deal is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the landmark 1987 pact designed to close the hole in the ozone layer by banning ozone-depleting coolants called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. That means the Kigali amendment maintains the legal force of a treaty, even if that treaty was ratified by the Senate during the Reagan administration.
Chemical companies responded to the 1987 agreement by developing HFCs, which do not harm the ozone layer but do trap heat in the atmosphere.
The Kigali deal came about in part because Mr. Obama, as he sought to build a legacy of tackling climate change, elevated the obscure effort to amend the Montreal Protocol to a top White House priority. The final agreement is also consistent with the president’s efforts to push his climate change agenda while using creative ways to bypass a hostile Congress.
Mr. Obama began paving the way to the HFC deal at a 2013 get-acquainted meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at the Sunnylands golf estate in California. The two leaders agreed to make a deal to reduce the use of HFCs a priority, a major concession from China, the world’s largest HFC producer.
Since then, American and Chinese companies have increased production of HFC replacement chemicals, and major chemical makers in both countries stand to emerge as winners in the deal.
Top officials from the chemical industry were in Kigali to push for the deal. “Our industry is hard at work doing the research on the HFC alternatives,” said Stephen Yurek, the chief executive of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an advocacy group. “Getting that right is certainly as important as reaching agreement.”
The Kigali amendment adds momentum to a series of new global climate change agreements. The Paris agreement entered into legal force this month, and governments from 190 countries adopted a deal to curb planet-warming emissions from the aviation industry.
“This will be the trifecta of international climate agreements,” said Andrew Light, a former State Department climate change negotiator. “It’s just extraordinary.”
In each case, the new climate deals have been criticized by scientists for being too weak, and together they do not add up to the solution to global warming. But each accord will make significant inroads on different parts of the problem.
Negotiators in Kigali conceded that the final deal was much less stringent than some had originally hoped. The United States and other rich countries had pushed a plan that would freeze the use of the heat-trapping chemicals by 2021, reducing them to about 15 percent of 2012 HFC levels by 2046. That plan would have eliminated the equivalent of about 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere by 2050.
Negotiators from India and some of the world’s other hottest and poorest countries pushed back hard at that proposal. In India, millions of people are on the verge of being able to afford air-conditioners cooled by HFCs.
The final deal will divide the world economy into three tracks. The richest countries, including the United States and those in the European Union, will freeze the production and consumption of HFCs by 2018, reducing them to about 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2036.
Much of the rest of the world, including China, Brazil and all of Africa, will freeze HFC use by 2024, reducing it to 20 percent of 2021 levels by 2045.
A small group of the world’s hottest countries — India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — will have the most lenient schedule, freezing HFC use by 2028 and reducing it to about 15 percent of 2025 levels by 2047.
After arriving in Kigali on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Gina McCarthy, and her counterparts spent hours locked in meetings, working on Excel spreadsheets to try to find a compromise. But no one could agree on the numbers. In contrast to many other environmental negotiations, it was possible for negotiators to calculate the exact effects of their proposals in real time, down to numbers of tons of planet-warming pollution avoided.
“It became clear that to get everybody to the same place was not possible,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It was not going to be a one size fits all.”
Mr. Kerry arrived on Thursday, and his talks with officials from India, Pakistan and China went late and grew contentious.
“We wanted a deal,” said Shri Manoj Kumar Singh, an Indian negotiator. “India is a hot country, a poor country, and we needed a deal that would work for us.”
After details were hashed out Friday night, the deal was gaveled in at 7 a.m., and the exhausted but exultant negotiators gathered for an impromptu Champagne breakfast.
Environmental advocates and countries that had pushed for a more stringent deal still called the Kigali amendment a significant step forward.
“It’s a step toward ensuring the survival of our island,” said Mattlan Zackhras, the climate change minister of the Marshall Islands, a low-lying Pacific nation threatened by rising seas. “But we need to take further steps.”
Negotiators noted that many of the hottest, poorest countries, including the entire African bloc, had decided not to join India on the least ambitious timetable, but rather signed on to the midlevel one. While most Africans lack air-conditioning, African negotiators said rapidly battling climate change was a higher priority.
“Africa is a continent that is deeply vulnerable to climate change,” said Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s minister of natural resources. “We are witnessing disastrous droughts — our people are losing lives. We need to address climate change if we are to address poverty.”
Rwanda, which has worked to emerge from the shadows of its 1994 genocide, hopes to become known as well for the forging of a major climate deal. Negotiators met in the sparkling new Kigali Convention Center, and the night the deal was completed, it was illuminated in green.
Workers assembling air-conditioners at a Daikin plant in India in 2014. The company also produces HFC32, a refrigerant. Credit Adnan Abidi/Reuters
How the Chemical Industry Joined the Fight Against Climate Change
By HIROKO TABUCHI and DANNY HAKIM
OCT. 16, 2016 It might seem surprising to find the world’s chemical companies on the front lines of preventing climate change, fighting to disrupt their own industries.
But in a sweeping accord reached on Saturday in Kigali, Rwanda, companies including Honeywell and Chemours, a DuPont spinoff, were among the most active backers of a move away from a profitable chemical that has long been the foundation for the fast-growing air-conditioning and refrigeration business.
The companies were driven less by idealism than by intense competition, and a bet that they could create more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Still, some environmentalists say the aggressive move away from hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, provides a template for other industries to follow.
Mark Goldes 13 hours ago
The irony is that breakthrough science and technology now makes possible air conditioners and refrigerators that need no chemical...
Chesh 13 hours ago
This, to me , is at least a sign of progress from the old days, where corporate America never looked past its nose in the search of quick...
Bob Hogner 16 hours ago
This is akin to the implementation of the 1980's Pollution Release and Transfer Register(PRTR). There, when faced with having to each year...
“They learned that without a rule change, their new products couldn’t compete,” said David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Washington. “They woke up and said, ‘The science is real.’”
“We wanted them restricted for purely environmental reasons. The companies wanted them restricted for many other reasons,” including profit, Mr. Doniger said. “But the point is that they had a certain common interest with the international community.”
The chemical industry’s response stands in stark contrast to the foot-dragging, and in many cases the outright obstruction of climate regulations, by the big oil companies.
Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others have been criticized for lobbying against rules to curb greenhouse gases for decades, even though their own researchers have warned of the risks of climate change.
Some environmentalists contend that the chemical companies were allowed to have too much input into the Kigali deal. They also say the deal could have been more ambitious in timing and scope.
And there are concerns that many producers in countries will not profit as quickly, consolidating the power of the world’s biggest companies. Much of the resistance to the agreement came from China and India, which feared that some of their chemical manufacturers would be shut out, or that their consumers would face higher prices.
“Although we welcome the outcome and there is progress, it’s being dictated by the industry,” said Paula Tejón Carbajal, the global business strategist for Greenpeace in Amsterdam.
The Kigali deal is the latest chapter in what has been at times an environmentally disastrous role played by the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry.
For decades, a class of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were used widely in air-conditioners and refrigerators, as well as in aerosol sprays and cleaning products. But scientists warned that CFCs deplete the ozone layer, which protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Chemical companies first resisted, saying that alternatives were not economically viable. “They were awful, just like the coal industry,” Mr. Doniger said.
But consumer concern about the chemicals led to slumping sales, and a handful of countries banned CFCs. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol agreement was created to completely phase out those chemicals.
The alternatives available at the time, HFCs, were greenhouse gases with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide. Concerns over those chemicals spurred campaigns by environmentalists to phase out HFCs as well. Photo
Air-conditioners on a summer day in Midtown Manhattan. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
This time, chemical producers raced to get ahead of any new round of regulations. Even as the switch to HFCs was taking hold in the early 2000s, Honeywell and several other companies began research and development programs to study alternatives with far lower warming potential.
Europe tightened its regulations in 2011, with stricter laws aimed at phasing out HFCs in car air-conditioners. Regulators in the United States gave credits to domestic automakers for switching to HFC alternatives.
In 2012, Honeywell set up a production base just north of Shanghai to make a more environmentally friendly HFC alternative known as HFO-1234yf. The company followed with a second plant north of Tokyo, and is set to open its largest production base in Geismar, La., early next year. It has spent $900 million on its alternative coolant program.
Since then, Honeywell has publicly voiced its support for stricter regulations, and in 2014, was one of a group of companies to partner with the Obama administration in its bid to make amending the Montreal Protocol a priority.
With the world phasing out HFCs, the company is set to reap the benefits of its investment. Though Honeywell does not break out specific figures for its chemicals business, it has said that sales of its HFC alternatives are rising fast, helping the company grow its annual revenues from its wider fluorine business by double digits to over $1 billion.
“This is an area where we are aligned with the environmental benefits,” Kenneth Gayer, vice president of fluorine products at Honeywell, said in an interview. “We anticipated the need for these regulations before people were even talking about global warming. Now, the world is going to use alternatives in a big way.”
Other options are now available, including systems that use propane or ammonia, and companies throughout the supply chain are racing to adopt them. Coca-Cola, for example, has put more than 1.8 million refrigerated vending machines and other HFC-free equipment into service.
Still, some environmentalists caution against what they see as excessive influence by the corporate sector in shaping the way forward for cooling technologies.
Daikin makes a low-cost HFC alternative called HFC32 that has a relatively small global warming impact, and is seen as useful for markets like India. Daikin, based in Osaka, Japan, makes both air-conditioning hardware and chemicals. It has been putting some of its patents in the public domain to encourage local manufacturers to use its chemicals.
Ms. Carbajal, of Greenpeace, saw the aggressive promotion of HFC32 as problematic. The industry, she said, decides “what is low and what is high, and that’s why we are very concerned.”
Ms. Carbajal said that while there was a range of better alternatives to HFCs, those were not the ones being adopted in some countries. “The problem is that the ambition has not been as high as we expected,” she said.
Damian Thong, who heads Asia technology research at Macquarie, said Daikin had backed HFC32 in an attempt to balance warming potential and higher energy efficiency.
Emissions from air-conditioners also come from generating the electricity they consume, Mr. Thong said. “The issue being glossed over is that focusing on global warming potential alone may be bad for the environment still,” he said.
Despite the remaining issues, the Kigali deal was an example of an emerging dynamic, where companies pre-empt environmental policy changes by developing more planet-friendly products, then push for regulation that grows that market, environmental experts say.
“More and more companies are looking further and further down the timeline to see what changes they can expect, and what they need to phase out of their products,” said Baskut Tuncak, a lawyer at the United Nations specializing in toxic chemicals.
“It shows regulations do drive innovation,” Mr. Tuncak said. “The more we have a global approach, the better it is, even for businesses.”