Thursday, October 27, 2016

Turning Up the Heat: Nations Cut Use of AC Chemicals to Stop Climate Change

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
President Obama has pushed a strong climate change agenda,
including renewable energy deployment and international action.
Credit: The White House

Earlier this month, even as U.S. efforts to  address greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector remained locked in a legal battle, the U.S. and almost 200 other countries formed a new international agreement to combat climate change. In Kigali, Rwanda, world leaders met this month for the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol and agreed to monumental cuts in the use of potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons.

Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are popular refrigerants used for air conditioning systems and refrigerators. HFCs have been the primary chemical replacement for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, which themselves were eliminated by the Montreal Protocol (although a new NASA study notes that HFCs also deplete ozone). However, HFCs are also known for their strong greenhouse gas effects; HFCs are 120 to 12,000 times as potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

Under the Kigali Accord, countries agreed to specific timetables for freezing HFC production and for reducing consumption thereafter. The timetable varies: by 2019, developed countries must reduce use by 10% from 2011–2013 levels, and by 85% by 2036; many developing countries (including China and Brazil) agreed to peak use by 2024, and other developing countries (including India and Pakistan) agreed to freeze use by 2028. The relaxed timetable for some countries recognizes in part that air conditioning could be more expensive with chemicals besides HFCs or CFCs and that air conditioning may be a necessity rather than a luxury in heat-stricken areas. Admirably, many developing countries voluntarily joined the midlevel timetables rather than the lowest level they could have chosen; leaders noted that combatting climate change had become a greater prerogative than expanding access to luxuries like air conditioning or refrigeration. 

By cutting production and consumption of HFCs by over 80% by 2050, the Kigali Accord promises to avoid more than 80 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent, possibly avoiding up to 0.5°C of climate change. That is a significant amount for the world to avoid. Recall, for comparison, that under the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, nations agreed that a rise of 2°C over preindustrial levels is the amount of change the world must avoid to prevent catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, earlier this year, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeded 400 ppm, the level scientists say is necessary to avoid 2°C of climate change. Even though the world may already be on set to exceed the 2°C goal, however, the scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change become increasingly catastrophic with greater temperature increases. The Kigali Accord may not be enough for the world to reach its original goal of avoiding 2°C, but it still represents a significant and major action in the fight against climate change.

Proponents note the Kigali Accord could have as much or more impact than last year’s Paris climate deal. Secretary of State John Kerry 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.” In large part, this is because the agreement represents a mandatory action for nations: specific and clear cuts in HFCs. In contrast, under the Paris agreement, countries’ actions to greenhouse gas emissions are purely voluntary.

Although only voluntary, the Paris Agreement is legally binding as an international treaty; it is not, however, a treaty under the U.S. Constitution. By framing it instead as an executive agreement under U.S. law, President Obama avoided having to seek the Senate’s ratification of the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, President Obama might need to seek the Senate’s unlikely and reluctant ratification of the Kigali Accord. Legally, it is unclear whether he needs to. The Kigali Accord amends the Montreal Protocol; the U.S. already signed and ratified the Montreal Protocol. Some reporters claim that an amendment to an already ratified treaty does not need to be ratified. Others note that it is unclear whether the Obama administration believes it needs ratification. A State Department representative commented that the Department is currently reviewing the Accord to assess whether President Obama needs to submit it to the Senate or not. Several law professors cited in the news say that ratification is necessary, both under international law and U.S. precedence. Others say it only needs ratification to be legally enforceable under U.S. domestic law. One law professor summed up the debate this way: “The president is going to have to go to the Senate or face a lot of political heat.”

Even without ratification, President Obama can push for compliance through more executive actions. Indeed, the White House has already celebrated getting commitments to reduce HFC use from the private sector. With or without ratification, observers expect HFC reductions to continue.

While the U.S. Clean Power Plan languishes in the courts, President Obama is continuing to push his climate change legacy. The Kigali Accord promises real, measurable avoided emissions in the years to come.

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