Before climate records were being consistently broken, before renewable energy was rapidly growing in popularity, and before any countries agreed to any climate treaties—and dare I say before most of you were born—there was the Montreal Protocol, and it was great.
The Montreal Protocol saved the planet from another slow-motion, human-driven disaster; the "ozone hole." Ozone forms an upper layer in the atmosphere that shields us from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. It also prevents other things from being ruined, including everything from crops to construction materials. Basically, without the ozone layer life on Earth wouldn't exist as we know it.
When the Montreal Protocol went into effect in 1987, it required countries phase out certain refrigerants known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were causing the damage. Thirty years later, scientists believe the "ozone hole" is on track to fully heal by mid-century. This is a truly remarkable feat of global cooperation that all began with the first United Nations treaty to be universally ratified.
However, there's a snag, and it's a pretty big one. The chemicals that air conditioning and refrigerator companies used to replaces CFCs turn out to be harmful greenhouse gases. International leaders, including Secretary of State John Kerry and EPA head Gina McCarthy are meeting in Vienna, Austria this week in hopes of fulfilling a long-anticipated update to the Montreal Protocol. If successful, the updated agreement would work to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); the super-potent heat-trapping chemicals that replaced CFCs.
According to the U.S. Energy Department, HFCs are hundreds of times more powerful in warming the planet than carbon dioxide, and their rapid growth could counteract much of the progress expected to be made reducing carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement. With use of air conditioners and refrigerators "exploding" worldwide, the urgency of scaling back HFCs continues to grow. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, without action HFC emissions are likely to soar 141% from 2005 to 2020. All of this could lead to an extra half degree Celsius of global warming. With two degrees warming being the upper limit scientists have agreed upon to avoid cataclysmic impacts (and 1C already in the books), a half degree is far too much to give to HFCs.
But this is a hopeful moment in negotiations, and stakeholders have promising trends to point towards. In lieu of a global agreement, the European Union, the United States, Japan, Australia, and other jurisdictions are implementing stringent HFC reduction policies. And according to the Natural Resources Defense Council "a suite of environmentally preferable alternatives are being developed by chemical companies, deployed by appliance manufacturers, and purchased by customers:"
For example, HFO-1234yf—a refrigerant with less than 1/1000th the heat-trapping potency of the HFC it replaces—is already being used in millions of car air conditioners across the world. Consumers have purchased millions of room air conditioners that use viable, energy efficient alternative refrigerants such as HFC-32 or HC-290 (propane). Building chillers are being commercialized with energy efficient, lower-potency refrigerants such as HFO-1233zd, HFO-1234ze, and HC-290. Some sectors, such as insulating foams, are skipping HFCs and jumping directly to HFOs and hydrocarbons. As alternative chemicals and products reach maturity, their costs come down. The transition pathways for industries in both developed and developing countries are becoming clearer and better understood.
By Saturday officials hope to have the working of a deal they can take to an October meeting where the final agreement is scheduled to be signed into action. One of the main sticking points is cost. One report from a Delhi-based think tank estimated that it could cost India as much as $1 billion a year to switch from just one variety of the HFC gases, of which there are 19 total. Hashing out these final stages of the agreement involves negotiating how much technical and financial assistance will be given to countries like India that stand to lose a lot economically from the change. The Montreal Protocol already has a built in system of funding new technologies and helping countries transition away from old ones.
On Thursday, McCarthy said negotiators are closing in on a deal.
“We are seeing all countries coming into this meeting with an incredibly positive and collaborative energy level,” she said at a press conference. “There is no country that appears to be standing on the sideline in this discussion.”