On Saturday, October 15, the most significant action in battling climate change since the Paris Agreement was enacted with an agreement from over 170 countries to phase out harmful greenhouse chemicals found in air conditioning and refrigeration units. Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, were the target of the treaty negotiated in Kigali, Rwanda, in a global effort to prevent a critical 3.6 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature averages worldwide.
HFCs, although they make up a small percentage of global greenhouse gases, have about 1,000 times the heat-trapping potential as carbon dioxide, and can therefore be significantly more potent.
Avoiding a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (two degrees Celsius) threshold above pre-industrial temperature averages, a point at which most climate researchers agree the implications of climate change could get exponentially worse, has been the central cause behind other climate actions, including the Paris Agreement signed in April 2016.
HFCs were developed following the Montreal Protocol of 1987 that forced manufacturers to discontinue the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have the potential to severely harm the ozone layer. HFCs, at this time, were seen as the lesser of two evils and, although not damaging to the ozone layer, the ensuing heat sequestration would create a dilemma for a world seeking to reduce the effects of climate change.
The Kigali deal, in direct contrast with the Paris Agreement that preceded it, sets specific targets and deadlines by which to phase out hydrofluorocarbons in favor of more eco-friendly alternatives.
Since governments are obligated to comply with the treaty and, now signed, must work to meet limits in HFC emissions, the deal has been considered to be significantly stronger than the Paris agreement, which featured voluntary emission reduction pledges by many nations.
Whilst many see the Kigali accord as being one of the most important climate agreements in the last decade, some developing countries are pushing back. Representatives from India, for instance, illustrated their citizens concerns of being on the verge of affording the luxury of HFC-containing air conditioners and denied this opportunity due to the agreement.
The developing status of some countries, and the over-consumptive behavior of others, has resulted in differing deadlines for the termination of production and usage of HFCs within the accord.
The United States will phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons by 2018, while India will reach this goal a decade later. These objectives will be enforced with trade sanctions, and therefore the deal is mandatory and potentially more punitive than the Paris Agreement.
As negotiators prepare to meet again in November to discuss the Paris Agreement and how it can be improved, the Kigali accord sets an important precedent.
The mandatory nature of the deal, while important to HFCs, must be translated into reduction of carbon dioxide and methane emissions worldwide in order to avoid a rise in temperature that could greatly exacerbate the effects of climate change.
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