‘Monumental’ deal to reduce HFCs

Photo credit: Michelle Rivera

By Emma Fentiman

An all-night negotiation has led to the “monumental” amendment of the Montreal Protocol, one of the greatest examples in history of globally collaborative environmental protection. Over 150 of the world’s 196 countries have signed up to the updated agreement.

Since its creation 30 years ago, The Montreal Protocol has successfully eradicated the use of over 100 fluorinated gases and its latest renewal aims to continue the pattern.

HFCs – or hydrofluorocarbons – are gases used as refrigerants in air conditioning, refrigerators and aerosols and were introduced to replace CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the 1980s. The Montreal Protocol has almost eliminated CFCs after the discovery that their ozone-depleting properties increased our exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

While many people remain unaware of the environmental impacts of refrigerant product consumption, John Kerry, the US secretary of state says that “agreeing a deal to phase down the use of HFCs is the single most important step we can take to limit the warming of the planet.”

While HFCs do not destroy the ozone layer, they have been referred to as “super Greenhouse gases”, trapping heat from the Earth in the atmosphere. They have a global warming potential 1,400 times greater than carbon dioxide, which is a more commonly recognised greenhouse gas.

HFCs will be phased out in a gradual process starting in 2019 headed by developed countries such as those in the European Union and the USA. The second milestone will come when over 100 developing countries – including mass polluters like China – will begin to cut HFC usage in 2024.

Developing countries with rising economies such as India have been granted an extra four years from 2024 to prepare for HFC emission reduction and allow their growing industries to adjust; they will begin to diminish their use of the gases in 2028.

The success of the agreement relies on each individual country’s commitment to the aim; if every country complies we could dodge a 0.5°C increase in global temperatures by the end of the century through an 80% decrease in Earth’s HFC levels by 2047.

Methods of gradual reduction will include improved regulations on newly manufactured products containing HFC coolants, which will limit or remove the permitted level of the gas in each product.

The Berkeley National Laboratory states that 1.6 billion new air conditioning units are expected to be installed by 2050, but the agreement means that 90% of the world’s air conditioning and refrigeration market is now expected to start moving away from HFCs. This demands a shift in innovation from the industry, which may be a step towards sustainable development and low cost technologies.

One of the key issues facing environmental protection initiatives is that alternatives can be promptly produced as a result of new regulation. When CFCs were being phased out, HCFCs took over; when HCFC usage was regulated, HFCs came into use. Will demand for these harmful fluorinated gases end or will HFCs simply be replaced with an alternative?

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