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Phasing Down HFCs: Good for the Climate and the Economy

The Montreal Protocol, designed to protect Earth’s ozone layer, is one of the most successful environmental treaties of all time. It banned nearly 100 ozone-depleting chemicals and set the ozone layer on a path to recovery. Unfortunately, banning these substances had an unintended consequence: the substances that replaced the banned chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), contribute heavily to climate change.

HFCs, most commonly found in refrigerants, air conditioners and fire extinguishing foams, are now the fastest growing greenhouse gases (GHGs) in much of the world, increasing at a rate of as much as 15 percent per year. HFCs are also among the most potent GHGs: the 100-year global warming potential of the most common HFCs is often thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If HFCs continue to grow at their current rate, by 2050 their use could increase by 30 times, which would cancel out most of the benefits from global efforts to mitigate climate change.

The good news is that although HFCs are extremely potent, they only remain in the atmosphere for about 15 years, so their concentrations can be reduced soon after emissions are cut. From November 1-5, Dubai hosts the 27th meeting of signatories to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer. This meeting presents a vital opportunity for the countries to come together to amend the Protocol to include the phase-down of HFCs.

A recently launched working paper on HFCs, produced for the New Climate Economy by Nathan Borgford-Parnell, Maxime Beaugrand, Stephen O. Anderson and Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, highlights HFC phase-down as one of the biggest opportunities to mitigate climate change quickly. If the current efforts by some countries and companies are backed by the Montreal Protocol, reducing HFC use could avoid 0.5 degree C (0.9 degree F) of warming by 2100. Not only can HFC phase-down quickly yield dramatic results, it can also bring economic savings for those replacing the HFC-based refrigerators and air conditioners with more efficient models. Seizing this low-hanging fruit for climate action would slow the rate of climate change and ease the transition to a new climate economy that is not dependent on greenhouse gases for growth.

Technically Feasible and Economically Profitable

Phasing down the use of HFCs is not only technically feasible with current technology, it is also economically attractive, with low up-front costs and markedly improved energy efficiency. Coca-Cola, for example, has installed 1 million HFC-free coolers as of January 2014, and reports a 40 percent improvement in energy efficiency since 2000, partly as a result of the alternative refrigerants. Heineken installed non-HFC refrigeration in two-thirds of its coolers worldwide, and reported that new units are 38 percent more energy-efficient than conventional ones. Non-HFC refrigerants are responsible for 10-15 percent of these improvements. Automakers have found that the initial costs of installing non-HFC refrigerants in vehicle air conditioners are far outweighed by the potential fuel savings.

A new challenge looms in the developing world, where some countries haven’t yet reduced the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, and could well follow the developed world in replacing them with GHG-emitting substances. But if these countries “leapfrog” over HFCs straight to lower-carbon alternatives, it would be considerably cheaper and cleaner, despite the need for up-front investment. Dedicated support to developing countries for implementation, for example through the established Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund, will be essential.

Next Step: Action under the Montreal Protocol

Over 100 nations, representing more than half of the planet’s current HFC production and consumption, support bringing HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. In addition, China, the European Union and the U.S. have all recently committed to more stringent HFC controls at the national level. On October 15, for example, President Barack Obama announced a suite of additional measures to reduce HFC use in the United States. Last year, China announced it would strengthen regulation of HFC emissions and accelerate a transition to alternative refrigerants. Momentum to phase down HFCs is growing in the private sector as well. The Consumer Goods Forum, an industry association with over 400 member companies, agreed to begin phasing down HFCs in refrigeration this year.

The Montreal Protocol is the world’s best bet to leverage international momentum to quickly, effectively phase down HFCs. Incorporating HFCs into the Protocol could avoid greenhouse gases that amount to more than the current annual emissions of Japan. The Protocol has been ratified by every country in the United Nations and has a proven track record of banning dangerous chemicals. The limits on HFCs that the Montreal Protocol can deliver will help create markets for next-generation technology, as well as common performance standards for manufacturers. The Protocol has well-established infrastructure, expert panels and the Multilateral Fund that can provide financing support to developing countries. Incorporating HFCs into the Montreal Protocol is the best way to ensure these super-potent GHGs are phased down, and would lead to energy efficiency improvements that save money for both companies and consumers.

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