Most optimistic coverage of climate change has disappeared since Donald Trump’s election last fall. In 2017, the great American debate about the existence of climate change has reemerged—a debate that ended nearly thirty years ago in every other developed nation. Since Trump announced his decision to pull out of the Paris agreement, then, morale has been low among those who hoped the international agreement would be a step towards limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
What little optimism remains, however, has been supported by two main ideas. The first is that the rest of the world, led by the remaining “G-19,” will continue to mitigate climate change until Trump loses in 2020. The second is the hope that the United States will continue to mitigate climate change on a local level, led by progressive cities and states who are still committed to a 2 degree scenario. These two conjectures go hand-in-hand, and they might be true. There is, however, a third reason for cautionary optimism in 2017: 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.
Last year, 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 Director of the Environmental Hazards and Health Effects program at the CDC 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 definitely 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 are growing about 10-15% per year in rapidly developing nations such as India, Brazil, and China.
But in the sort of Catch-22 presented all too often by climate change, however, the best immediate solution for the threat of heat waves will also exacerbate it. 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 most significantly the disposal of cooling items such as AC units, vehicle ACs, and refrigerators.
Unfortunately, as the effects of climate change continue to take hold, it is 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? Perhaps surprisingly, there is an existing international agreement to limit HFCs that might actually work. Last year, 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 Paris, Kigali 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. To understand the scale of this agreement, consider that 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. Similarly, LED technology is expected to replace 90% of traditional lighting by 2050, but will only result in a 7.8 gigaton reduction 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 that the percentage of coral reefs at risk of long-term degradation would be around 70% instead of 90% by the end of the century. 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. Finally, a few of the world’s hottest nations—including India—have until 2028 to begin HFC reductions, and African countries opted to begin their reductions earlier than required given the severe impacts of climate change in the region.
Though the Kigali amendment has not been ratified in the United States, the EPA still has the authority to regulate HFCs, and in 2016 released an HFC phase-out plan and approved climate-friendly refrigerants through the Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP). Surprisingly, though the Trump administration has pledged to undo Obama’s climate change policies, the 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.
This is not to say that the Trump administration is actively supporting the HFC ban. Rather, the support of industry leaders and the appeal of domestic job creation have so far been strong enough to keep the regulations intact. Moreover, the fact that HFC regulations and the Kigali Amendment are relatively unknown has probably protected them from the Trump Administration, since, unlike Paris, they are rarely presented as a liberal golden calf. In the age of Trump, this merits some cautious optimism.