The United States and China announced today that they will work together and with other countries to “phase down” the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are extremely potent greenhouse gases. A global phaseout would be the equivalent of cutting 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping just finished a two-day meeting in California initially thought to be more of an unscripted chance for the two leaders to forge a personal relationship than a meeting with any specific policy agenda. This is Xi’s first meeting with Obama as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the analogue to the Chinese presidency. Recently China has made news on plans to cut carbon emissions but then appeared to partially walk some of that news back. The fact that powerful greenhouse gases were on the agenda during their talks is a welcome sign. And if the so-called “Group of Two” regularly acts to reduce the use of substances that cause climate change, it makes it much more likely that the rest of the world will agree to do the same.
Congressional Democrats urged the President to bring up HFCs during the meeting in a letter on Wednesday. According to the White House, the specific agreement between China and the U.S. reads:
Regarding HFCs, the United States and China agreed to work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, while continuing to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.
HFCs are used in air conditioning, refrigeration, and if released, stay in the atmosphere for 15 years. Their use has skyrocketed as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the ozone-destroying compounds whose production was banned in 1990 through a global agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. This agreement was signed in 1987 and required reductions in CFC use but an amendment in 1990 required a complete phaseout. Every country in the world is a party to this agreement. At the time, experts saw HCFs (and HCFCs, which were eventually regulated under the Montreal Protocol) as “one of the best substitutes for reducing stratospheric ozone loss.” In the 1990s, all new vehicle air conditioning systems began to use HFCs.
Yet HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide is the most famous human emission that causes climate change, other so-called “super pollutants” are responsible for nearly half of global warming. HFCs are one of these super pollutants. Automobile manufacturers are aware that the air conditioning systems they sell contain substances that do this, and they encourage consumers to recycle their vehicles so that chemicals like HFCs can be reclaimed.
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