Like a dark twist in a dystopian science fiction novel, we had inadvertently unleashed a monster
The Paris Agreement, the first global accord to tackle climate change, has been getting a lot of love lately. It has been ratified in record time and will come into force next month. Yet all its lauded goals and national pledges to reduce carbon emissions will be undermined if countries fail this week to tackle a little known, but deadly, greenhouse gas: hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.
HFCs - originally designed to be some kind of an environmental savior - have the potential to accelerate climate change at a rapid rate if left unchecked. Thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, their use in refrigerators and air conditioners is growing by 10 to 15% a year. It's vital that while the war on carbon gets most of the attention, we don't take our eye off other crucial battle lines in the fight for the climate.
This week in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, nations are meeting to hammer out a plan to phase them out. At the heart of the talks will be the date at which the world will end their use.
A group of a hundred countries, including the Africa Group, Pacific Island States and the EU are pushing for an early phase-out around 2019 for developed countries and 2021 for developing countries. But worryingly, others are calling for the date to be pushed back with India calling for it to be as late as 2031.
It doesn't take an atmospheric physicist to calculate that with the demand on the rise in developing countries for HFC-driven cooling devices- ironically needed in an evermore warming world - that such a date would spell disaster for the climate.
In Paris country leaders pledged to limit global warming to 2°C and to do their upmost to keep it to 1.5°C. If they are serious about keeping those promises then they need to get serious about HFCs. Those crucial climate thresholds won't be met with HFCs left on their current course.
Our factories began churning HFCs out in 1990 as a silver bullet to ‘fix the hole' in the ozone layer caused by their predecessors, CFCs and HCFCs. What we didn't realise then, but we know now, is that although the new chemicals didn't deplete the ozone layer, they had the potential to cook the planet. Like a dark twist in a dystopian science fiction novel, we had inadvertently unleashed a monster.
The good news is that we have time to get it back in its cage. Human ingenuity has once again come up with a solution to our HFC problem and, this time, we hope there won't be any nasty surprises. In fact by replacing HFCs we have the potential to prevent a full degree centigrade of global warming. Not only are the new natural refrigerants less warming, the new technology is also much more energy efficient. This reduction in energy use would have the twin benefits of saving both money and the planet.
The problem is that the growing demand in developing countries for cool rooms and cold drinks needs to be met. Many countries are still phasing out older technology using HCFCs, and this poses an opportunity. Rather than slowly follow behind the developed world they can leapfrog HFCs altogether and transition to the newer, more efficient, less harmful equipment.
To aid this transition and encourage an earlier phase down date, richer nations have committed to providing funds that developing countries can call on when investing in the slightly pricier, newer, kit. Known as the Multilateral Fund, this pot of money has a budget of $507.5 million between 2015 and 2017.
In September a group of countries including the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands topped it up with a further $27 million. And in a groundbreaking move 19 philanthropists chipped in a further $53 million. It's not uncommon for philanthropists to give money to causes they think are important but it's very rare to see them offering that cash directly into the coffers of nation states. This all goes to reassure developing countries that they have nothing to fear from a jump away from HFCs. In fact they have much to gain.
One might wonder why HFCs were not dealt with in the historic negotiations in Paris just 10 months ago. It was decided that they were better left to the Montreal Protocol - the pioneering treaty which was hailed as the most successful environmental accord in history when it successfully closed the ozone hole.
In Kigali this week we need to see still further support offered to speed up this transition, including more financial support and ‘tech transfer', so that poorer countries can benefit from the latest technological developments. The more of this that is provided the quicker poor countries can move away from these pollutants and the earlier we can be rid of them for good.
Joe Ware is a journalist and New Voices writer for The Ecologist.
He can be found on twitter at @wareisjoe