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World leaders urged to scrap key greenhouse gases at Rwanda summit

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and French President Hollande hold a press conference on the sidelines of the Paris Agreement on climate change held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York (22/04/2016) Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Greenhouse gases used in everyday items like aerosols and foam insulation need to be urgently reduced to fight global warming, is the message of a global gathering this week in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Experts say cutting hydro-fluorocarbons (HFCs) is the fastest way to reduce global warming.

 


Halting the use of HFCs, also found in aerosols and foam insulation, is crucial to meeting the goals to curb the rise of global temperatures agreed in an historic accord signed in Paris last year.

HFCs are the replacement for CFCs, which were discontinued under the ozone-protecting 1987 Montreal Protocol, when scientists realised they were responsible for the growing hole in the ozone layer, which protects Earth from the Sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays.

The ozone layer has been healing slowly since, but scientists have since realised that HFCs also cause global warming.

"HFCs have a global warming potential much higher than CO2," Paula Tejon, Greenpeace's Global Strategist and an expert in Climate Change, told RFI. "They are the fastest growing greenhouse gas, increasing at a rate of 10-15 percent per year. Should HFCs replace HCFCs in developing countries, consumption of HFCs in those countries is projected to be four to eight times greater than in developed countries by 2050

"It is estimated that under the current rate of growth , if left unchecked, annual HFC emissions could be equivalent to 12 percent of annual CO2 emissions by 2050, adding up to 0.1°C of global average temperature rise by mid-century and 0.5°C by 2100."

Fund for developing countries

Experts all agree that the transition would be a very easy one to achieve. In fact, as a UN representative said this week in Kigali, it is "one of the cheapest, easiest, lowest-hanging fruits in the entire arsenal of climate mediation".

One might ask if it would be just as easy for developping countries and the answer is 'yes' because it's already underway.

"There is a fund called the Multilateral Fund, which developped countries contribute to, and developping countries and their industries benefit from," David Doniger, the Director of Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Programme, told RFI.

"In the last 30 years, there has been approximately three billion dollars transferred to this fund to help developping countries replace the CFCs and and a lot of other ozone destroying chemicals. The developped countries, in Europe, the United States, are ready to put more funds into the Multilateral Fund in order to help the developing countries with the transition wawy from HFCs, if the developping countries agree to an appropriate schedule. That's what has to be hammered out and it looks like we're very close to it."

On top of that, last month, a group of developed countries and companies offered another 72 million euros to help developing countries make the switch away from HFCs.

Unknown long-term effects

The one thing that could darken the picture is the fact that in some industrial sectors, the technology needed is not yet available or remains quite expensive. Also, it requires more research on its long-term effects.

"There are sectors where new technologies are coming but there are question marks over the performances of those technologies. These are new technologies called HFOs (Hydrofluoroolefins, chemical compounds composed of hydrogen, fluorine and carbon). And we're not very sure that these chemicals will be safer for the environment in the future," Chandra Bushan, from the Indian Centre for Science and Environment, told RFI.

"So there are question marks. But there are also alternatives in other sectors, like for example refregiration, alternatives are already available, and I don't see any problems for developing countries shifting quickly to these safer chemicals."

Chemical industry influence

Greenpeace's Paula Tejon says one of the main challenges is the total control of the chemical industry over the negotiations. "They are dictating the pace," she added.

"Since the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, the chemical industry has profited handsomely from marketing new generations of fluorocarbon chemicals (HCFCs and HFCs) to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). And yet, the industry has never contributed any funds to help solve the global crisis caused by their products.Today the industry is betting on continued windfall profits from fluorocarbons on HFOs and HFC-32 as prime replacements for HFCs. However, these substances, in the long run may also prove to be dangerous."

Efforts have been made, experts say, and it seems that the goals set by the international community could be reached on time.

"They have to be! We need to supply the economically, meaningful manner, the latest environmentally friendly technologies to the developing world so that they don't continue to make the mistakes that the industrialised world made at the beginning of the industrial era," Martin Beniston, head of the Department of Climate Change Impacts at the University of Geneva, says.

"We are in a position, collectively, to supply environmentally friendly technologies and that's one of the direct, or indirect, provisions of the Paris agreement [on climate change]."

In Kigali experts say that it looks like an agreement might be reached by the end of the week, which, they say, shows the will of world leaders to tackle issues related to climate change.