HFC gases (hydrofluorocarbons) used in refrigerators and air conditioning have been considered the most dangerous pollutant that increases global temperatures. One may recall that a prime objective of the Montreal Protocol (1987) was to reduce the use of CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), which were considered the most hazardous chemicals depleting the earth’s ozone layer. After the Montreal Protocol agreement, refrigerators and air conditioning manufacturing factories switched to using HFCs as the “saving replacement” of CFCs. While scientists have already proven that though HFCs has no negative effect on ozone layer, they have also shown that they pose significant damaging effects on the environment by increasing global temperature. HFCs can store atmospheric heat even thousand times more effectively than CO2). As a key component of coolant systems, HFC use is rising with global temperatures and predicted to rise further as the planet’s temperature rises and as developing nations get richer and can afford such cooling systems. These reinforcing feedback loops make HFCs even more threatening – and make action today more effective and more feasible than waiting.
Action, for once, is being taken. On October 15 2016, 197 countries adopted a historic agreement at Kigali, Rwanda to cut-down the uses of HFCs (gradually) due to their strong impact on global warming. The aspirational goal of the Kigali agreement is that “developed countries will reduce HFCs by 10% by 2019, and developing countries will be freezing the use of HFCs in 2024, and achieve a 10% reduction by 2029”. A deal during HFCs phase-out negotiation means that the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund will also provide support to cover incremental costs related to the transition away from HFCs. The expected gain from action is to keep global temperatures from rising about 0.5 degrees Celsius over the remainder of the century.
Is it possible to achieve the goal within these timeframes? It largely depends on the successful implementation of HFCs agreement, which might be quite challenging. The Montreal Protocol is considered one of the most successful global cooperative actions ever taken. This was possible not only because HFCs were available as ready substitutes, so that costs of implementation were low for consumers, but also because production was concentrated. Together, DuPont and Dow chemical companies accounted for up to ½ of global CFC production. DuPont quickly patented a substitute for one of the CFCs. The company also formed an industry trade association to represent their interests in any negotiations – now known as the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy. Phasing out CFCs might have been costly, but it also provided opportunities.
Today, the substitution costs have increased. Dow and DuPont are in the middle of (delayed) merger negotiations with antitrust regulatory agencies in the US and Europe – successful completion of the deal will likely reduce competition, but could deepen pockets for R&D. Researchers need to play a vital role here by inventing and implementing super-efficient technology. The manufacturers also need to come forward by investing money to invent new “ecofriendly technology” that is also cost effective – a big pharma-type solution with monopoly pricing for substitutes such as one envisions could be fostered by patent laws and mergers will have dramatic consequences for adoption of the ban in developing countries. Consumer’s willingness to pay extra money for “green refrigerator or air-cooling devices” will also be a vital factor. However, while the target might be optimistic, we hold hope that the goal will be achievable if all the signatory nations (specially the world’s two leading economies, the United States and China) and the firms they represent will sincerely play their active roles to save our planet by reducing HFCs consumption.
Co-authored by Brooks Kaiser