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Last week, far from the fog machines and live streams of the U.S. election, world leaders gathered in Vienna to finalize what could well be the biggest climate victory of 2016. In a deal that could be reached this fall, climate negotiators are amending the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that led governments to phase out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), so that it covers hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, as well. Although HFCs do not deplete the ozone, as CFCs did, they are the world’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas, with a global warming impact thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide. Eliminating their use would do more to reduce global temperatures in this century—by perhaps 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit—than any other available policy.
In short, these negotiations are big, and, if successful, could well go down as the most important climate deal no one is watching. Although toiling in relative obscurity can sometimes prove helpful to progress, especially on sensitive collective action problems like climate, the deal is not fully inked. The Obama administration deserves enormous credit for its steady progress in these negotiations, including a major milestone last month when the White House secured critical support from India (the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter and a major source of global HFC emissions in the coming decades). But it is now time for the world to take notice. As the deal’s few smart followers warn, there is a risk that, with such little popular attention, negotiators could fail to reach a deal that is sufficiently ambitious. And even the best deal is only as good as its enforcement and implementation, both of which typically require more public spotlight than the current negotiations have so far received.
The sharp rise of HFCs actually stems from the successes of the Montreal Protocol. Hailed as “perhaps the single most effective international agreement,” the Montreal Protocol went into force in 1987 and governed the gradual elimination of CFCs, a widespread ingredient used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays, which were rapidly depleting the Earth’s ozone layer. Even as the protocol succeeded in phasing out CFCs, industry began swapping them out for HFCs, an alternative gas used in refrigeration. HFCs spare the ozone, but their heat-absorbing properties make them among the world’s worst greenhouse gases. As a result of this industry swapping, the use of HFCs has grown some 260 percent since 1990.
And this is only the beginning: between 2010 and 2050, HFC emissions are slated to grow between 686 percent and 1,139 percent, due primarily to growing demand for air conditioning and refrigeration in developing countries. At this pace, HFCs will comprise ten percent of annual CO2 emissions by 2050. In other words, even if countries do manage to sharply reduce CO2 emissions in the next three decades—as is required by recent pledges to limit the average global rise in temperatures to two degrees Celsius by 2050—business-as-usual growth of HFCs will wipe out most of the climate benefits.
This is why climate negotiators have set their sights on closing the loophole—amending the Montreal Protocol to cover HFCs—as the single most important climate action the world could take this year. As with most climate negotiations, the current talks are focused on two things: a baseline and a timeline. An ambitious deal should aim to avoid the equivalent of 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide and more than 0.5°C of warming by 2050 (by way of comparison, the Montreal Protocol in its current form has averted greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide). It should also waste no time in its implementation. For every year that implementation is delayed, the world will likely emit enough HFCs to surpass the warming from over one gigaton of CO2 emissions, a sum that “is on par with the emissions from of all the cars on America’s roads,” Brent Harris, a longtime climate advisor and partner at Redstone Strategy Group, told me.
Phasing down HFCs should be seen for the economic opportunity it is, for developed and developing economies alike.An HFC amendment would not be cost-free. Best estimates suggest it would cost around $8 billion to $10 billion over the next three decades. (According to the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, the cost of the CFC protocol to the United States alone was $21 billion in 1985 dollars.) But, at about eight or ten cents per ton of CO2 equivalent, phasing out HFCs is among the single best climate investments the world can make.
And that is before factoring in other important climate benefits a deal would bring. Eliminating HFCs will also drive significant energy-efficiency gains in air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment, which will yield additional greenhouse gas reductions. There exist various HFC alternatives with far lower global warming potential, which perform as good or better in a variety of domestic and commercial refrigeration applications and some air-conditioning systems. A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests the efficiency gains could spare an additional 98 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050. That would virtually double the emissions reduction potential of phasing out HFCs.
In that sense, phasing down HFCs should be seen for the economic opportunity it is, for developed and developing economies alike. U.S. firms such as DuPont and Honeywell own patents on some of the HFC alternatives and therefore stand to benefit from a switch, and industry in developing countries stands to profit as much or more. And some are beginning to realize as much. Indian and Chinese companies are leading the way on a new generation of air-conditioners that use propane as an alternative to HFCs.
If the world is to meet its goal of limiting global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius by 2050, there will be plenty of hard decisions yet to come. Let’s make sure we don’t forfeit precious ground on the relatively easy ones.