Envoys from nearly 200 nations are meeting in Kigali to discuss ridding the world of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), gases introduced to save the ozone layer only to unwittingly assail Earth’s climate.
Representatives of 197 countries — among them 40 ministers including US Secretary of State John Kerry — are attending the summit.
Delegates are hopeful that after years of talks, countries are now poised to commit to phasing out HFCs, introduced in the 1990s to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigerators, aerosols and air-conditioners.
CFCs were discontinued under the ozone-protecting Montreal Protocol when scientists realized they were responsible for the growing hole in the ozone layer, which protects Earth from the Sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays.
However, it turned out that HFCs — while safe for the now-healing ozone — are thousands of times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
“We are meeting ... with unity of purpose: to pass an ambitious amendment to the protocol that would phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons,” Rwandan Minister of Land, Forests, Environment and Mining Vincent Biruta said.
“We have a unique opportunity to harness the goodwill and commitment to protect our climate and secure the bright future our citizens deserve,” he said.
HFCs “are increasing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent a year,” Greenpeace global strategist Paula Carbajal said, making them “the fastest-growing greenhouse gas.”
“If HFC growth is not stopped, it becomes virtually impossible to meet the Paris goals,” said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, referring to the so-called Paris Agreement on curbing climate change.
Wael Hmaidan, international director of Climate Action Network, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, called for “an ambitious deal” to be signed in Kigali.
HFCs — though a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — are not dealt with under the Paris Agreement, but under the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987.
The protocol also provided for the phase-out of interim replacement gases called hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) — by 2040 for developing countries, and 2030 for rich ones.
This week’s meeting, which started on Monday, is the 28th of the treaty’s 197 country parties.
Negotiators are weighing various proposals for amending the protocol to freeze HFC production and use-by dates ranging from right away to 2031.
India, which is a major HFC producer along with China, backs the later date, while countries in very hot parts of the world, where HFC-using air-conditioners are in high demand, want temporary exemptions.
Last month, a group of developed countries and companies offered US$80 million to help developing countries make the switch away from HFCs.
This week’s meeting follows hot on the heels of an aviation industry agreement to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels by 2035, and the Paris Agreement obtaining the required signatures to enter into legal force from Nov. 4.
Bureaucrats have been meeting in Kigali since Monday with senior officials arriving to try to thrash out a final agreement yesterday and today.
“It’s critical that nations seize this opportunity to reach the most ambitious HFC phase-down agreement possible,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based think tank.
“Our time to act to limit the worst consequences of climate change is rapidly dwindling,” she said.
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