The Forgotten Agreement

The Kigali Amendment didn’t have the glamour or press coverage of the Paris Agreement. But it may be the most significant international climate change agreement to date.

Photo by  Ernest Brillo .

Photo by Ernest Brillo.

A previous iteration of this article appeared on the blog The Anthropocene.

The big climate policy battles in the US have generally been over renewable energy generation, oil and gas drilling, and transportation. On a nationwide level, the US has clearly done poorly in transitioning (justly, or frankly at all) away from fossil fuels. However, there’s a lesser-known issue on which the US is set up for surprising progress: the very unsexy issue of refrigerant management.

In some ways, the case of refrigerants is a prime example of the unfortunate irony of climate change. Developing nations, which have historically been the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that have led to climate change, face its worst effects: heat waves, famine, monsoon changes, and sea level rise, to name a few. In turn, most of the climate adaptation infrastructure that would curtail the effects of this extreme weather—reliable electricity, air conditioners, and resilience infrastructure such as seawalls—requires either a level of capital investment that many developing nations do not have access to, or an increase in carbon dioxide emissions that many nations cannot afford.

In 2016, for example, the city of Phalodi in northwestern India reached the hottest recorded temperature in its country’s history–123.8 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, human bodily functions that allow for adaptation to extreme heat are severely compromised and the effects of heat stroke set in. As CDC Director of the Environmental Hazards and Health Effects program Mike McGheehin explains, heat stroke begins with the human body’s perspiration mechanism shutting down and can lead to damage to the circulatory and central nervous systems, organ failure, and death. Heat stroke explains why over 2,500 people died when temperatures soared during a heat wave in India in 2015, and why people continue to die at record pace as the result of extreme heat events throughout the world.

The best available solution to extreme heat is air conditioning, something we take for granted in the United States. Not surprisingly, AC units are among the first things Indian consumers buy when they reach a certain income threshold. As a result, AC sales have been growing about 10-15% per year in rapidly developing nations such as India, Brazil, and China.

But in the catch-22 presented all too often by climate change, the best immediate solution for heat waves will also exacerbate the threat. In addition to increasing energy usage, AC units use coolant chemicals, commonly called refrigerants, that themselves contribute significantly to climate change. The most common class of refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), exhibit between 1,000 and 9,000 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide and can stay in the atmosphere for over 100 years longer. HFCs are usually released into the atmosphere during the manufacturing, servicing, and disposal of cooling items such as AC units, vehicle ACs, and refrigerators.

As the ravaging effects of climate change continue to mount, it’s likely that the frequency of extreme heat waves—such as the one in Phalodi—will increase, meaning that air conditioners will become a necessity for survival in places where they haven’t always been. So if the world is expected to install 700 million air conditioners by 2030, why is there room for optimism? 

It turns out there’s actually an existing international agreement to limit HFCs that might work. In 2016, almost 200 nations met in Kigali, Rwanda to negotiate a legally-binding amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would phase out HFCs. While it didn’t have the glamour or press coverage of the Paris Agreement, the Kigali Amendment may be the most significant international climate change agreement to date. That’s because the phasing out and proper disposal of HFC-intensive products under Kigali could avoid the emissions equivalent of 89.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide. For scale, if 85% of trucks worldwide adopted the best available fuel efficiency technologies by 2050, the emissions reductions would only amount to 6.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. 

In other words, if successful, Kigali will prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming. That’s huge. When comparing a 1.5 degrees warming scenario to a 2 degrees scenario, half of a degree translates to about 30% less sea level rise and avoidance of nearly half the yield reduction in wheat and maize that would otherwise occur. It also means that tropical regions would see significantly shorter extreme heat waves, and the percentage of coral reefs at risk of long-term degradation by century’s end would drop from 90% to 70%. None of this is to say that we will be able to limit warming to 1.5 degrees if Kigali is implemented; in fact, it’s overwhelmingly likely that we won’t. Nevertheless, the comparison of the two scenarios highlights just how dramatic a 0.5 degrees centigrade worth of mitigation is.

Notably, the Kigali Amendment allows for differentiated approaches to limiting the spread of HFCs. For example, the richest parties to the Montreal Protocol, including the United States and the European Union, will reduce HFCs production and consumption starting in 2019 (both the US and the EU had HFC reduction policies in place before Kigali). Most other countries, including China and Brazil, will begin phasing out HFCs in 2024. A few of the world’s hottest nations—including India—have until 2028 to begin HFC reductions, while African countries opted to begin their reductions earlier than required, given the severe climate impacts in the region.

Though the Kigali Amendment has not been ratified in the United States, the EPA still has the authority to regulate HFCs. The Trump administration hasn’t shown it’s willing to ratify, although unlike other climate policy areas, an HFC ban actually has broad industry support from companies such as Honeywell, which already has HFC alternatives and built a plant to manufacture them in Louisiana. Still, banning HFCs has seen other kinds of conservative opposition.

Let this be a call to the next president to support ratifying the Kigali Amendment as a key policy plank. As an area of climate policy with industry (and pro-climate groups’) support, Republicans in Congress—if they continue to control the Senate after 2020—are less likely to dig in to oppose Kigali. Nevertheless, if the grassroots movement behind the renewable-energy-and-union-jobs approach (read: GND) continues to expand its political potency, it will carry support for Kigali with it. 

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