Environment

G-20 leaders agree to cut use of potent greenhouse gases

Led by US and China, leaders promise to reduce use of gases thousands of times more damaging than carbon dioxide

Afghan children carry coal for a brick factory on the outskirts of Jalalabad on May 9, 2013.
2013 AFP

Leaders from the United States, China and 23 other countries agreed to reduce the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs -- greenhouse gases commonly used in refrigeration -- at the Group of 20 summit in Russia on Friday.

HFC emissions are expected to reach the equivalent of 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 if left unchecked, according to White House statistics.

President Barack Obama released two statements at the G-20 on Friday, one cosigned by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and another by the leaders of 23 smaller countries and the European Union, supporting the use of the Montreal Protocol to reduce the use of HFCs.

The Montreal Protocol provides governments with guidelines to reduce emissions of certain gasses. It is the same Protocol that helped virtually eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, the notorious ozone-depleting gases released from aerosol cans. Its success in getting countries to phase out those gases led former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to call the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

But the Protocol’s success has had the unintended consequence of encouraging manufacturers to use HFCs, which can now be found in virtually every air conditioner and refrigerator.

HFCs don’t deplete ozone, unlike their now-banned predecessors, but they are still a potent greenhouse gas that is widely believed to contribute significantly to global warming. The most common HFC is 1,430 times more damaging to the climate system than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

China’s agreement to follow the Protocol for HFCs may be especially important, since the use of HFCs are increasing rapidly in developing countries, where many residents are buying their first air conditioners and refrigerators.  That could be why India and Brazil -- two of the fastest growing countries in the world -- are notably absent from today’s statements. Today’s agreement could put pressure on those countries to join the Montreal Protocol.

But even without their support, the multilateral agreement could be enough to remove 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere by 2050, about the same as eliminating two years of CO2 production completely, according to the White House.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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