WASHINGTON D.C. — Carrying forward the momentum from their June accord, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to work together to phase hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) out of production within their countries. Commonly used in air conditioners and other coolant systems, HFCs replaced the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons after they were banned by the Montreal Protocol of 1987 (effective 1989). HFCs were later found to be an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, rated at 11,700 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.
The agreement between two of the world’s biggest polluters has no exact details as of yet. However, Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, estimates that swift action by China and the US to eliminate HFCs could reduce emissions equivalent to 100 billion tons of CO2 by 2050. Messrs Obama and Xi also said they would work together to convince other countries to cease HFC production as well.
Despite the uphill battle both leaders face domestically to pass the necessary measures, a more difficult discussion awaits in the international arena. Nations on the cusp of ‘the developed world,’ such as India and Brazil, as well as nations with less presence such as South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Ukraine, have made the argument that developed countries push these regulations in the UN for the purpose of bolstering their own economy.
There are currently only four corporations with the technology and capital to mass-produce HFC-134a – the short-lived alternative to HFC-23 which disintegrates after 10 days and has a greenhouse effect rating of four times CO2. Two are based in the USA, and one in Japan and France respectively. Developing countries worry that the market is being cornered, in effect, as they are forced to pay this firms large amounts to retain the ability to refrigerate food and air condition buildings. Furthermore, they say, the developed world used HFCs for years without being forced to innovate.
Because the points these developing countries make are valid, refuting them is a difficult task. With the Montreal Protocol becoming the first treaty in history to be universally ratified, the developing world has shown it is willing to take steps to fight pollution; but alternatively, prior to the 2012 termination of the carbon credit program, the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism was duped into paying factories located mostly in India and China to create additional pollution. Understandably, many countries are unwilling to sacrifice economic health for environmental health.
There is an argument to be made for the developed world paying a kind of ignorance tax to the developing world – to help repent for past environmental sins, and to help nations entering an industrial period fraught with polluting potential. As this only shifts the reluctance from one side to the other, however, it would take a forceful push by the USA, EU, and Chinese leaders to convince legislators of such a course of action.
The most encouraging aspect of September’s agreement is the example it sets to the rest of the world, and the message it sends to corporations at home, that politicians may finally be getting serious about pollution. With some scientists predicting major ozone collapse over industrialized countries, action cannot be taken soon enough.
– Alex Pusateri
Sources: Down To Earth, Washington Post: US, China Phase out HFCs, Washington Post, UNEP