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The Rwanda Agreement: HFCs and Climate Change

The Rwanda Agreement: HFCs and Climate Change

Catholic Climate Covenant welcomed the October 15 announcement that 170 countries negotiated an agreement to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons in an effort to slow global warming. Along with the Paris Agreement, the decision made in Rwanda represents another critical step by global leaders to address climate change. 

What are Hydrofluorocarbons?

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were introduced in the 1980s as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had already caused significant damage to the earth’s ozone layer. The agreement put in place by the Montreal Protocol (1987) called for a halt to the production and use of all CFCs and has proven to be highly effective—experts now believe that the hole in the ozone layer will be fully healed by the middle of the 21st century.[1]

While HFCs are less harmful to the ozone layer, they are a powerful greenhouse gas with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.[2] Recently, the number of HFCs released into the atmosphere has been growing as developing countries such as China and India increasingly use air conditioners for their homes and offices. Because of their potency, scientists have warned that the continued use of HFCs threatens to undermine the achievements of the Paris Agreement.[3]

Global Negotiations 

The agreement reached last Saturday in Kigali was the result of 7 years of negotiations between rich and poor countries.  The agreement calls for quicker action on the part of wealthier nations, with phase-out of HFCs beginning in 2019, while poorer nations have been given until 2028, allowing time for their economies to grow. Rich countries have also agreed to help finance the transition of poorer countries to greener alternatives.[4] This compromise, as well as the support of major chemical companies, helped make the agreement possible. 

In contrast to the Paris deal, the agreement reached in Rwanda is legally binding and includes sanctions to punish defectors. If the goals of the agreement are reached, scientists have estimated that it would prevent the warming of one degree Fahrenheit—a significant contribution to preventing the 3.6 degree increase in global temperature scientists have warned would mark a point of irreversible damage to the planet.[5]

Laudato Si’ in Rwanda

In his encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis called for global leadership in tackling climate change. As rich countries are the most responsible for climate change, while poorer nations bear most of the burden, Pope Francis also called on rich countries to make good on the “ecological debt” they owe to developing countries (51). 

This kind of leadership has been evident in the negotiations to reduce and eliminate HFCs. President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China agreed in 2013 to make the elimination of HFCs a priority for their governments and followed through on that pledge in Rwanda this past week. Additionally, we saw strong leadership from the African nations when they chose not to join other developing countries in choosing a later date to comply, but rather opted to commit to the earlier date of 2024, citing the need for urgent action on climate change.[6]

Catholic Climate Covenant is grateful that world leaders are heeding Pope Francis’s call and acting together to address the global crisis of climate change. We also commend leaders of wealthier nations for their acknowledgment of the “ecological debt” by committing to fund the efforts of developing countries. CCC strongly encourages these countries to follow through on this pledge and also to continue to be responsive to the needs of poorer nations in future negotiations.

What Now?

Because HFCs are manufactured by just a few Western companies, it has been relatively easy for their governments to increase the pressure on them to identify and deploy alternatives. A variety of energy efficient, safe alternatives are already available today. The European Union has already moved to phase out HFCs. In the United States, the EPA and the Department of Energy are also acting to reduce and replace HFCs.[7]

While we celebrate this significant agreement, we must remember, however, that even as HFCs are replaced in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, our continued use of these systems consumes significant amounts of energy. Air conditioning accounts for 6% of energy use in the United States. As long as our energy is generated by non-renewable resources, our use of air conditioners and refrigerators will continue to contribute about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.[8] This is why, as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, we must replace highly polluting fossil fuels without delay (165). 

Sarah Spengeman, Ph.D. is Director of Programs at Catholic Climate Covenant


[1] https://www.epa.gov/ozone-layer-protection/international-treaties-and-cooperation

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/africa/kigali-deal-hfc-air-conditioners.html?_r=0

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/15/climate-change-environmentalists-hail-deal-to-limit-use-of-hydrofluorocarbons

[4] https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2016/09/a-new-effort-to-save-the-ozone-layer-and-protect-the-climate/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/africa/kigali-deal-hfc-air-conditioners.html?_r=0

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/africa/kigali-deal-hfc-air-conditioners.html?_r=0

[7] https://blog.epa.gov/blog/tag/hfcs/

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/10/science/air-conditioner-global-warming.html

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