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Moving in the Right Direction

The global deal can help reduce the planet’s warming by as much as 0.5°C

The world took a big step toward reaching its climate change goals on Saturday when 197 countries agreed a deal in Kigali, Rwanda, to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases, used in appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners.

Unlike the Paris Agreement, which was signed last December in the French capital, the accord to cut back on HFC use is legally binding, such that none of the signatories can back out of the agreement without facing repercussions, ranging from reduced technical and financial assistance to trade sanctions.

The Paris Agreement’s main objective is to limit the planet’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5°C. The ambitious goal can only be reached with bold action, such as the deal signed in Rwanda.

The deal is important because it builds on the 1987 Montreal Protocol and aims to reduce HFC gases, which are as much as 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. According to the United Nations’ analysts, the deal can help reduce the planet’s warming by as much as 0.5°C, which may not seem like much but in reality could be the difference between a world with sustainable food production and one facing severe food and water shortages.

An Amendment

Technically, the deal is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol signed in 1987 in Canada, but it took two years for it to go into effect.

The Montreal Protocol was a response to repeated warnings by scientists who had found that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were depleting the ozone layer—the atmospheric "shield" that protects the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

The accord aimed to phase out the use of CFCs and HCFCs, which were used in AC units, refrigerators, aerosol sprays and fire extinguishers. Soon, HFCs were invented to replace the harmful gases. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t damage the ozone layer but are potent greenhouse gases.

The developing world’s growing demand for air conditioners and fridges has caused HFC emissions to shoot up in the past 30 years and according to a 2015 study, global emissions of HFCs rose by 54% between 2007 and 2012.

Developing countries are responsible for around 42% of HFC emissions. East Asian countries, including China and South Korea, make up around a third of these emissions, the researchers say.

Due to HFCs’ major contribution to global warming, nations decided to phase them out too under the Montreal Protocol.

Years of Wrangling

The accord struck in Rwanda took years of negotiations and wrangling and—like any win-win deal—it took concessions and compromises to finally reach an agreement.

Developing countries have always accused developed nations of overlooking their need for growth and development when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions began to rise dramatically following the industrial revolution, which saw today’s rich and developed countries become the economic powerhouses that they are today.

By contrast, developing nations have only just begun to catch up and they argue that curbing their greenhouse gas emissions will hamper their industrial activities and take a toll on their economies.

To help alleviate concerns and allow developing nations to plan ahead, the deal allows for two groups of developing countries to freeze the use of HFC gases by 2024 and 2028. Most developing countries, such as Brazil, will freeze their consumption by 2024 and will gradually reduce their use to achieve a 10% reduction in 2029.

A small group of developing countries comprising Iran, India, Iraq, Pakistan and other Persian Gulf states will aim to freeze their consumption by 2028 before reducing their use by 10%. These countries argued that because they have fast-expanding middle classes who heavily rely on AC units due to their hot climates, they could not accept the earlier deadline.

Developed nations, including the US and much of Europe, began reducing their HFC use last year and have committed to slashing their consumption by 85% by 2036.

According to a scientific panel advising the parties at the conference, the total cost of phasing out HFC use will amount to $4 billion to $6 billion, although the Russians say it could cost as much as $10 billion.

The planet’s accelerated warming is the result of more than a century of relentless industrial activities, which brought with them major advancements but have also put the world on a dangerous path.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the planet from reaching the point of no return involve a multistep process that calls for pushing down emissions across a wide array of sectors and sources.

The landmark deal signed over the weekend is one of those steps and marks the biggest step ever taken to avert the catastrophic impacts of manmade global warming.

Jimirasire

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