On Saturday, representatives of more than 170 nations met in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and successfully negotiated a legally binding measure to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a coolant used in refrigeration and air conditioners. While the chemical makes up a very small percentage of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it traps heat 1,000 times more powerfully than carbon dioxide. For this reason, observers have noted that this accord could have an impact equal to, or even greater than, the broader Paris agreement reached last year.
According to President Obama, the deal is “an ambitious and far-reaching solution to this looming crisis,” referring to climate change.
Addressing the other diplomats at the meeting in Kigali, Secretary of State John Kerry said praised the agreement, saying “It is likely the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet and limit the warming for generations to come. It is the biggest thing we can do in one giant swoop.”
The deal, negotiated over the last seven years, achieves compromises between richer and poorer nations. Some nations with rising levels of wealth, just starting to use air conditioners on a large scale, will phase out the use of HFCs more gradually than some nations who have been expelling HFCs into the atmosphere for many years. Wealthier nations in general will phase out their use more quickly than poorer nations, although some poorer nations who are gravely threatened by climate change have chosen to phase them out more quickly than required.
The heat-trapping potency of HFCs is not the only reason the Kigali agreement may turn out to be more effective against climate change than the highly publicized Paris agreement. While the Paris accord addresses a broad range of emissions, the pledges are voluntary, and sometimes vague, also hinging on future political outcomes in various countries. The new Kigali deal is more binding, specifying timetables and targets for replacing HFCs. The agreement will be more enforceable, with trade sanctions outlined to punish nations who fail to meet their targets. It includes plans for wealthy nations to help fund the transition for poorer nations, facilitating what can be an expensive shift for poorer countries.
Given the damaging nature of HFCs, and the likelihood of the Kigali agreement to result in real changes on the part of government and industry, scientists have said this single agreement may be able to limit global atmospheric temperature increases by as much as one degree Fahrenheit. Given that experts have warned that a 3.6 degree increase could lead to irreversible changes, such an impact would be significant in avoiding such an increase.