Politics of Poverty

Staying cool without warming the planet

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Hydroflourocarbons (HFC), gases used in everyday appliances like air conditioners, are on the rise and are massive contributors to climate change. The Kigali Amendment, reached last week, is hoping to change that. (Photo: pmorgan / Flickr)

The appliances we use every day to keep cool are warming the planet. The Kigali Amendment, seeks to change that—a huge win for climate and development.

You already know that driving your car and other uses of fossil fuels are raising global temperatures, but did you ever think your solutions for beating the heat were contributing to it as well? That’s right – there’s a good chance your refrigerator and air conditioner are also contributing to climate change. That’s because they contain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent group of global warming gases.

However, with an agreement adopted Saturday by nearly 200 countries in Kigali, Rwanda, the world now has a plan to mitigate HFCs. Here’s why that’s a big deal for both climate and development.

The Road to Kigali

Almost 30 years ago, the world came together to ban substances that were creating a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol. As a substitute for the coolants banned in that treaty, HFCs were manufactured and introduced. Problematically, however, HFCs are global warming super pollutants, with atmospheric warming effects thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

In short, by continuing to use HFCs to cool, we would have almost certainly cooked the planet: out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Fortunately, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol gives the world HFC ‘freeze dates’ (no pun intended) to limit their growth and phasedown their use over the next few decades (developed and developing countries are on different phasedown timelines, but most countries will cease new production and use by 2024). If successful, countries will avoid emitting tens of billions of tonnes  of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere in the coming years, potentially avoiding nearly 0.5oC (0.9oF) of warming by the end of the century.

Why the Kigali Amendment Matters for Development

Even if degrees Celsius aren’t part of your usual lexicon, action on HFCs (and climate change more broadly) should be a rallying cry for anyone who cares about ending poverty and hunger, and the long-term prospects for development. Here are two reasons why:

  1. It puts low-emissions development solutions front and center.

Development and climate present some potentially uneasy choices: How do you bring billions of people out of poverty while not locking in a high-emissions pathway that will lead to climate chaos? So too with HFCs, which have been used for decades in the developed world, and now are growing rapidly in developing countries as more people enter the middle class and want to buy air conditioners and refrigerators. For billions outside of the developed world, cooling is novel and has the potential to transform societies (arguably for better and for worse), like it did for the developed world. Cooling is also increasingly a life-saving necessity as record heatwaves—spurred by a warming planet—become the norm. Fortunately, cost-effective alternatives to HFCs with minimal effect on the climate exist and many countries and companies are already making the transition. The Kigali Amendment demonstrates that win-win solutions for climate and development are achievable.

 2. It helps vulnerable communities avoid climate crises.

It’s clear that without deep cuts in carbon dioxide and gases like HFCs and methane, we increasingly risk harming the ecosystems we rely on for our survival. This has a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable, who have done little to cause this escalating planetary crisis, but are most reliant on predictable climate conditions for their food security, shelter, and livelihoods. Consequently, a changing climate also threatens to undermine efforts to alleviate poverty. So although 0.5oC of avoided warming may not sound like much, it’s a big number for the planet (think how you feel when your internal body temperature ticks up a degree or two) and for vulnerable communities, who are affected first and worst by climate change. Although the local victories of avoided warming are not easy to measure, the benefits to human development of mitigating climate change are clear. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that small-island states, whose very existence is at risk from sea-level rise, were some of the early champions for an aggressive timeline for HFC phasedown when negotiations began years ago.

Pivoting to Implementation

Like the Paris Climate Agreement, the Kigali Amendment is just a beginning. Rapid implementation of the agreed phasedown will have to be a priority of both developed and developing countries. Notably, to turn the agreement into action, governments and philanthropists have stepped up to help fund implementation, aiming to ensure that no country has to sacrifice development needs for climate action.

To be sure, the wind is still at our faces, and governments and corporations will need to move more quickly to keep global temperatures within ‘safe’ bounds, but the Kigali Amendment provides a necessary foundation. Now advocates, governments, and private sector actors must continue their work together to make sure these deals are realized for a more stable climate and a just world.

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