This was the news that woke me up last Sunday: 'United States and China agree to work together on phase down of HFCs.'
Good! Finally some political action to reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions! Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are a serious threat to the climate as they are super GHGs thousands of times more powerful than CO2 and rapidly expanding, especially in developing countries where refrigeration and air conditioning needs are growing fast. They probably cool your soda, your ice-cream and even your home and your car. Their rapid phase-out is one of the most cost-effective measures to protect the climate in the short term. And the good news is that long-term environmentally friendly alternatives are already in the market and ready to go in most applications: natural refrigerants.
Let's open that bottle of champagne already waiting in the fridge during more than four years of political inaction! Who cares that it is only 10 am?
But wait a minute. United States? The largest user of HFCs in the world and father of the 'baby'? China? The largest producer of HFCs worldwide? Benefiter of the most perverse incentive that the UN climate politics has ever created? Phase down? How and by when? And very important, who else is on board? HFCs? To be replaced with what?
Let's rewind to the 80s when the first generation of F gases was born. F gases in contrast to the main other GHGs are the only man-made group of gases. The proud father was the US chemical industry. Unfortunately, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) almost destroyed the ozone layer back then. So after a few years of back and forward and obstinate denial by the industry, we managed to chase them away; the CFCs, not the chemical companies.
Unfortunately, for all of us and the planet, they didn't have the intention of going away. And the same people who got us into trouble found the perfect solution at the right time, claiming to save us all from ozone catastrophe: HFCs. And while they got them ready, they even got us a temporary replacement: hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), both ozone and climate destroyers that will still be in use in developed countries until 2020 and in developing countries until 2030. With HFCs, the third generation of fluorinated compounds, the chemical industry offered us an ozone friendly alternative but not climate friendly though!
This brings us to the present and to a similar situation. We are trying to get rid of a chemical alternative that yesterday was a solution and that today is once again a problem for our planet. And yet again, the US chemical industry – which can't profit anymore from HCFCs and HFCs as China and others can produce them much more cheaply, especially since they receive incentives to do so – claims to have the magic bullet to save us all; this time from climate change. The heroes this time are the new HFCs or so-called HFOs, also known as climate-friendly HFCs. Genius, isn't it!
What HFOs will bring, nobody knows. The first studies talk about toxic by-products upon production and decomposition with unknown risks for the environment and human health. I am afraid that only time will tell. HFOs are ready to go. So it is the US political machine. The chemical industry has profited from ozone depletion and it seems to be now set to profit from global warming. I wonder what China has got in return …
Don't get me wrong. I celebrate that we are getting closer to the end of a painful deadlock at the Montreal Protocol process – I say closer because I guess that other key players such as India and Brazil, still need to get on board – and that US and China have got to an agreement so HFCs can be discussed at the right forum.
My only hope is that this is an agreement made on good faith. An agreement that will endeavour to achieve what is in the best for the environment and our planet and not what is in the best interests of the industry. In other words, to open up my precious bottle of champagne and kick off the party, the agreement will have to aim for a phase out of HFCs by 2020, natural refrigerants should become the world's choice and the primary replacement for HFCs wherever available.
Image: Greenfreeze production line in Kelon factory. The first refrigeration technology that is neither ozone-depleting nor climate-killing, invented by Greenpeace. © Greenpeace / Alan Hindle