President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping just finished a two-day meeting in California initially thought to be more of an unscripted chance for the two leaders to forge a personal relationship than a meeting with any specific policy agenda. This is Xi’s first meeting with Obama as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the analogue to the Chinese presidency. Recently China has made news on plans to cut carbon emissions but then appeared to partially walk some of that news back. The fact that powerful greenhouse gases were on the agenda during their talks is a welcome sign. And if the so-called “Group of Two” regularly acts to reduce the use of substances that cause climate change, it makes it much more likely that the rest of the world will agree to do the same.
Congressional Democrats urged the President to bring up HFCs during the meeting in a letter on Wednesday. According to the White House, the specific agreement between China and the U.S. reads:
Regarding HFCs, the United States and China agreed to work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, while continuing to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.
HFCs are used in air conditioning, refrigeration, and if released, stay in the atmosphere for 15 years. Their use has skyrocketed as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the ozone-destroying compounds whose production was banned in 1990 through a global agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. This agreement was signed in 1987 and required reductions in CFC use but an amendment in 1990 required a complete phaseout. Every country in the world is a party to this agreement. At the time, experts saw HCFs (and HCFCs, which were eventually regulated under the Montreal Protocol) as “one of the best substitutes for reducing stratospheric ozone loss.” In the 1990s, all new vehicle air conditioning systems began to use HFCs.
Yet HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide is the most famous human emission that causes climate change, other so-called “super pollutants” are responsible for nearly half of global warming. HFCs are one of these super pollutants. Automobile manufacturers are aware that the air conditioning systems they sell contain substances that do this, and they encourage consumers to recycle their vehicles so that chemicals like HFCs can be reclaimed.
Projected HFC use in 2009. (Credit: NOAA)
Yet leaks happen, and HFC use has skyrocketed with no end in sight, particularly in developing countries. Environmental groups began flagging the potentially catastrophic warming effects of HFCs in the last decade, and offered cheaper, natural, efficient alternatives to using HFCs as refrigerants.
California’s Air Resources Board has already taken action to limit the leakage of HFCs in mobile air conditioning through the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have offered an amendment to the Montreal Protocol for the past four years that would “gradually reduce consumption and production and control byproduct emissions of HFCs in all countries.” Now China is on board. A global effort to phase down the use of the harmful chemical could possibly cut the equivalent of 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. This amount is nearly equal to two years’ worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions.
John Podesta, chair of the Center for American Progress, and former White House Chief of staff, released the following statement today:
“The American-Chinese agreement to phase down HFCs is great news for the planet. Phasing down HFCs under the protocol will reduce climate change pollution equivalent to 100 billion tons of C02 emissions by 2050. This measure will avoid .5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The global goal is to limit temperature increase caused by climate change to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and we’ve already warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius. Phasing out HFCs is hugely important given the disastrous increase in extreme weather and public health threats we are already experiencing.
“To date, China has been a key hold out to getting a deal on phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol which the U.S. has been pushing for the last four years. President Barack Obama deserves great credit for his leadership and I applaud President Xi’s decision to commit Chinese leadership to help solve the climate crisis. This HFC agreement is a critical step to fulfill President Obama’s promise to respond to the threat of climate change, as he said in his inaugural address.”